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  2002-12-27 Janitors vs. Westfield

San Diego Region

San Diego

University Towne Center

Janitors vs. Westfield:
Is justice being served?

San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, Dec. 27, 2002

By Donald H. Harrison

Thanks to Scott Marks, film curator of the Museum of Photographic Arts, I
was able to retrieve the name of a wonderful old movie that the ongoing
labor dispute at Westfield Shopping Centers has caused me to remember
somewhat wistfully.
In The Devil and Miss Jones, kindly multimillionaire J.P. Merrick is puzzled to read one day in the New York Times that he had been hanged in effigy by the employees of a department store, who felt they were being mistreated. He thereupon inquires of a servant what the department store has to do with him. The servant informs Merrick that he owns the store. "I do?" Merrick gasps

Merrick's business empire was so vast, he didn't even know he owned the department store, much less what subalterns were doing in his name. But, being a kindly 

Rabbi Ted Riter, Sister Justine
Church and Rabbi Laurie Coskey 
lead protest at University Towne
Center/ DH Harrizon photo 

sort, he decided to find out for himself, so he took on an assumed identity and secured a job as a shoe salesman at his own department store. Thereafter he made friends with the employees, especially the clerk Mary Jones, and suffered with them through some of the labor practices to which they were subjected by middle management. Of course, Merrick eventually set things right.

That romantic comedy starring Charles Coburn and Jean Arthur was made by Hollywood in 1941. Sixty-one years later, there is a nearly parallel situation, in which the janitors of the Westfield Shopping Centers are complaining about the labor practices of subcontractor Building One Service Systems (BOSS). However, in this case, this is no comedy, and life hasnıt
been imitating art.

Peter Lowy, a real-life billionaire who runs the Westfield Corporation, which in turn owns seven major shopping centers in San Diego County, is no kindly J.P. Merrick — at least not so far as the janitors and their supporters among the clergy are concerned.

What makes Lowy a complete puzzle to his adversaries in this labor dispute is that he can't be simply written off as a miserly capitalist intent on exploiting workers just to add to his big pile of profits. The Australian capitalist, who spends much of his time in Los Angeles, recently donated his entire $11 million salary to charity to commemorate his immigration 50 years before to Australia as a Jewish refugee from Hungary.

Rabbi Moshe Levin, the former spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in La Jolla and a vocal member of the local Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, lured Lowy into a crackling letter exchange last summer.

Commenting that because Westfield is a "Jewish-owned entity" and he felt "impelled to intercede," Levin suggested to Lowy that the Westfield Corporation was morally obligated to do something about the situation, even though the janitors are employees not of Westfield but of the subcontractor Building One Service Systems.

"The first chapter of Pirkei Avot teaches us 'Keep far from a bad neighbor and do not be a partner to evil,'" Levin wrote on Aug. 27. "We do not look for excuses to exonerate ourselves from injustice — we are, quite to the contrary, committed to correcting injustices.

"We cannot stand by and say that it is not our concern that the people who come in every night and wash the floors and scrub the toilets and clean the windows to our establishment are not given a single paid holiday, a single day of sick leave and work without any health insurance or benefits," Levinıs letter continued.

 "On top of that, these are mostly immigrants desperately trying to make a life for themselves and their families, and paid the paltry wage of $7.00 an hour! And if any of them opens a mouth to Building One or their fellow workers questioning this treatment, they face repercussions that leave them without even this job.

"Westfield selected Building One! Westfield pays Building One! And Building One is acting in the name of Westfield."

The rabbi added: "The Talmud teaches that we are responsible for what is being done in our name."

Further, Levin noted that Rosh HaShanah was then growing near, and commented: "There is a beautiful statement in the Talmud that, as we approach the High Holy Days, we should regard the world's entire future as hanging in the balance, and our next deed is the one that will tip the
scales." He suggested that, for Lowy, making things right for the janitors would be that next deed.

Lowy responded to Levin in a letter dated Sept. 24, after demonstrators supporting the janitors were escorted out of his offices in Los Angeles.

"Westfield must manage its properties efficiently on behalf of its retailer tenants," Lowy wrote. "Our tenants are very concerned about their costs. We, therefore, strive to subcontract with contractors who can provide quality services at competitive prices. Building One informed us that it pays in excess of the minimum wage and offers benefits that the prior janitorial
service contractor did not provide."

Furthermore, Lowy wrote, "Building One has also informed us that the janitors who work on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter get paid overtime, that the company provides a competitively priced health insurance plan that the employees may purchase, and that after a year of service a janitor received a week of paid vacation.

"Your issue is not with Westfield. Your issue is with Building One," Lowy continued. "Please do not come to our offices, as you did today, uninvited.

"We view this matter as concluded."

However, Lowy then added "one final note regarding your citation of religious texts in support of your organizational efforts" in his letter to Levin.

"Clearly," he wrote, "you made the decision to write to me after discovering that I am Jewish. In fact, I am a traditional Jew who takes seriously both the study of Jewish texts and their application to the ethics of daily living.

"I am also of the opinion that a rabbi should exercise more caution before embarking on the course you have selected. Before quoting me Pirkei Avot, invoking the kedushah of the high holidays, and occupying my offices, you might have bothered to investigate the facts yourself rather than rely on the testimony of ed mi-pi ed (hearsay). Somehow, the possibility of being
malbin p'nei havero be-rabim (embarrassing someone in public) did not seem
to trouble you much.

"Bottom line, we can quote text to each other all day long," Lowy said. "In the final analysis this is a political question relating to unionization, unrelated to Westfield, and about which reasonable men can differ. By exploiting a very general statement from the Mishnah in order to obtain a
political goal, you do yourself, me and our tradition a serious disservice."

On Oct. 17, Rabbi Laurie Coskey, director of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, wrote a letter responding to Lowyıs points. It was co-signed by Rabbi Alexis Roberts of Congregation Dor Hadash and by Rev. Wayne Riggs, chairperson of the Plymouth Congregational Church; Sister Justine Church of Medical Missions Sisters, Rev. Robert Ard of Christ Church of San Diego, Brother Ed Dunn of the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights; Dr. Jamie Gates of Point Loma Nazarene University's Center for Justice and Reconciliation; Kent Peters, director of the Catholic Diocese of San Diego's office for social ministry, and Rev. Ned Wight of the Summit Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

"Regarding paid vacation, we understand that if a BOSS janitor is absent 5 days in the year, that employee is not eligible for vacation pay," they wrote. "Additionally, very few of the 150 janitors are able to endure a full year of the harsh treatment and low compensation that they receive from

"Further, the vacation offered by BOSS is not even close to the vacation benefits offered by Union contractors.

"We are aware that it will cost you significant dollars to hire a responsible contractor," the clergy members wrote. ³We are sympathetic to your needs as responsible business people. However, the reason that you cut costs on the backs of immigrants who donıt speak the language or know how to maneuver in our sophisticated technological environment is because you can!
That is immoral and inhumane."

* * *
The Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice continued its efforts on Dec. 18, a Wednesday when Westfield's University Towne Center shopping center was crowded with pre-Christmas shoppers. Coskey and Rabbi Ted Riter of Temple Solel of Encinitas were among a
contingent of clergy that included Riggs, Church, Dunn, Gates and Wight and
others wearing collars, kippot, stoles (tallitot) or other clerical garb.

As the group gathered to march, Mike Wilzoch, San Diego director for Service Employees International Union 1877, compared the differences in benefits for janitors who work for BOSS and those with union contracts.

BOSS janitors earn $7 an hour; union janitors receive $7.25 at suburban locations and $7.95 at downtown locations, he said. BOSS janitors receive no paid sick days off; union janitors receive six sick days. BOSS janitors receive no paid holidays off, although they do earn time and a half if they work Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas; union employees receive 10 paid

Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) said if BOSS and Westfield continue to ³turn aside² janitors in "the fight for justice," a legislative solution may become necessary. A law requiring a "living wage" is one approach that could be taken, she said.

The clergy members, labor representatives, off-duty janitors and lay sympathizers marched from a parking lot to a Westfield customer kiosk and later to a food court inside the shopping center before returning to their cars.

En route, Rabbi Riter told Heritage that "the whole reason, not just that I'm a rabbi but that I am Jewish, is that I believe we have an obligation to help mend this world, the idea of tikkun olam. This is the real tikkun olam; it is getting out there and actually doing something." As the marchers sang Civil Rights Era songs, some distributed literature to shoppers. A contingent placed Christmas presents for the janitors' families into a box to dramatize what they said was the workers' inability to support their families on less than a living wage.

Competing to make themselves heard with Christmas music piped over the shopping centerıs public address system, the demonstrators conducted a prayer service as shoppers swirled past them and police and security guards quietly ringed the group, just in case any problems occurred. The demonstration was peaceful.

Among the demonstrators'  readings was one, in responsive format, called "Litany for Workers."

"Leader: God, you stand with the poor and disenfranchised and for justice among peoples. Please show us how to do the same.

"All: God, hear our prayer.

"Leader: As people of faith, we are dismayed by a system that threatens workers with replacement, shatters their hope of dignity and respect and denies their benefits, health care and pensions. Have mercy upon us for our complicity in this sin.

"All: God hear our prayer.

"Leader: Shatter our complacency; give us a sense of holy outrage about this
cruel and blasphemous abuse of your creation and your will.

"All: God, hear our prayer."

Following the demonstration, Heritage sought comment from a spokesman for Westfield Shoppingtown UTC. At General Manager William C. Miller's office, representatives of the newspaper were told that comment must come from corporate offices in Los Angeles. There, however, Catharine Dickey, vice president of communications, said the company chose not to comment.