A group of janitors in Houston have won a tentative case for higher pay and health insurance, helped by the SEIU (Service Employees International Union). The win comes after the moving testimony before attorneys and executives during which one Salvadoran janitor, Ercilia Sandoval (see video), told her story of battling cancer without health coverage:
Last September Sandoval began feeling worn out on the job. She scrubbed bathroom fixtures through headaches and fevers, emptied trash cans with sore arms and a tight back. Lacking health insurance, she couldn’t afford to see a doctor. Nearly a year passed before she forked over $200 for a consultation. A mammogram confirmed her worst fears: She suffered from advanced-stage breast cancer. Yet hospitals in Houston wouldn’t treat her because she was uninsured. She waited two months to be approved for state disability coverage. In June, doctors finally began chemotherapy treatments but say she probably has only a few months to live.
Just as her cancer was spreading, she met an SEIU organizer at her Episcopal church who was looking for janitors. The organizer found in Sandoval someone eager to harness her outrage and despair. “Some of the workers were afraid,” Sandoval says, “but often I said, ‘Afraid of what? We are not going to lose a good job. We are not going to lose a good salary — we don’t have benefits, we don’t have anything.’” As Sandoval’s health deteriorated, her resolve strengthened. In September, she accepted a spot alongside the SEIU top brass at the negotiating table. Her job: to persuade the cleaning companies to provide her and 5,300 fellow janitors with health insurance in the union’s first contract.
And Ercilia did just that. The stony faces of those there to rule on the case quickly changed to tearsome when Sandoval removed her wig to reveal the baldness caused by chemotherapy:
On the day of the negotiations, Sandoval was the last person to talk. She feared she’d be just another person asking for something. She stepped into the bathroom to steel her nerves. Returning to the conference room, she asked the executives and lawyers if they were looking at her. “And I looked them all in their eyes,” she says. “I assured myself that they were all looking at me. And I took off my wig.”
Sandoval saw a group of men who were shocked. “Some were crying. Others sat with their mouths open. Other ones just couldn’t even blink their eyes.
“And that,” she adds, “is what I wanted.”
The commercial contained in this post is part of a larger campaign by SEIU to show the plight of service workers who are underpaid and, more than often, uninsured.