SAN FRANCISCO - For weeks now, teams of supermarket janitors have been traversing northern California on a mission. They say their campaign to get the giant Safeway, Lucky's and Save Mart grocery chains to switch from toxic cleaning chemicals to new "green" cleaning standards would not only benefit workers but would also help the buying public and the environment.
One such team was here Nov. 5, passing out information at a Safeway store on Market St. and a Lucky's on Fulton St., and talking with customers about the harsh and dangerous substances they are now required to use.
Martha Aragon, who for three years has cleaned and polished floors, deli and butcher areas, bathrooms and other facilities at a Safeway store in the north-central California city of Roseville, told the World the substances she uses, especially the strippers to remove wax from the floors, make her feel nauseated, and give her headaches, watery eyes and a running nose.
When she reported the problems to her supervisor at the company that contracts with Safeway for cleaning services, she said the response was, "Well, you have medical benefits."
And Aragon is not alone. Their union, SEIU Local 1877, says that in a recent survey, virtually all the janitors reported symptoms related to the substances they use at work.
Other janitors have said they are not told what chemicals they are using, and they are not provided with safety gear and training.
The issue is at the top of the list in negotiations now underway for a new contract for some 700 janitors serving the northern California supermarkets. Their previous pact expired Oct. 31.
At a parking-lot rally at the Market St. Safeway, Denise Solis, the union's northern California vice president, said Safeway and Lucky's, with their use of "caustic, unsafe chemicals," lack of protective measures and proper cleaning equipment, "are not being good neighbors."
She called on the stores to shift to "better standards and green cleaning chemicals" so workers can be safe on the job and families won't buy food contaminated by toxic chemicals.
"We have 700 janitors fighting not only for better wages and benefits but also for a clean and safe environment in these grocery stores," she said. "We are asking all of the communities to support the janitors, because it is an important cause for anyone who buys groceries at these stores."
Environmentalists say some chemicals known to be toxic are often used in cleaning supermarkets, including substances that can cause neurological damage and harm livers, kidneys and reproductive systems. They also point to the problems associated with flushing large amounts of toxic chemicals down the drain and into the water system.