In city workers’ shoes

Pub date April 17, 2012
WriterDavid Chiu

We both work under City Hall’s iconic dome as civil servants. While I often work late into the evening hours as a supervisor, Robert’s back-breaking work as a janitor is often done past the midnight hour, five nights a week.

I had the opportunity to meet Robert last week, as part of the “Walk A Day In Our Shoes” program of Service Employees International Union, Local 1021.

Robert is 52 years old. He’s worked for the city since 1999. Before that, he worked for San Francisco Unified School District. He sweeps and mops the floors and stairs of the famous rotunda and cleans 150 cubicles.

Last week, Robert had me take off my jacket and tie, roll up my sleeves and do his job for a while. I swept the marble floors, which are truly unending. I mopped the grand marble staircase behind happy couples exchanging wedding vows. He let me attempt to push a gigantic whirring machine that felt more like a Zamboni than a vacuum.

When I was younger, I had a summer job as a janitor at a public high school, so I know how truly strenuous Robert’s job is.

Robert injured his spine as a result of pushing that heavy vacuum for years. When he was in the hospital treating his spinal injury, the doctors discovered cancer. While in chemotherapy, he didn’t miss a day of work. He lives cancer-free today.

Robert is also a green pioneer at City Hall — he started a recycling program here before it was popular to do so. After that, the rest of the city caught on. He has photos of himself and the past four mayors in his home. He offers directions to visitors. He has a son, and they both live in his sister’s home. He speaks lovingly of his wife, who he lost to diabetes several years ago.

As our economy evolves, we can’t leave people like Robert — those who support our world-class city —behind. While we court businesses who create new jobs in our city, we also need to reinvest in the people who do the important work that often goes unnoticed.

Hospital workers are up at 4am, preparing meals for patients. Library technicians provide bilingual translation for our children. Others, like Robert, are up until 1am, making sure we have a clean and safe environment to work every day.

After years of concessions to balance deep budget deficits, city workers experienced ongoing cuts to their wages and benefits. In current contract negotiations, they are being asked to give hundreds more each month in healthcare costs to insure their children.

We appreciate all they have done to help our city in times of need. As our city recovers economically, it’s time to thank them, to ask others to help shoulder the costs for affordable housing, parks and recreation facilities and schools, and to reform our local business tax — which is paid by only 10% of our city’s companies.

Last week, I got to know a fellow civil servant whose work we need to remember to value. Which is why I will stand alongside Robert, labor unions, nonprofits, community members and neighbors on Wednesday, April 18, in front of City Hall from 4pm to 7pm. Please join us in supporting the workforce that supports us all, 24 hours a day. 

David Chiu is president of the Board of Supervisors.Thousands of community allies, elected officials, and SEIU 1021 members will rally on Wednesday, April 18 to close tax loopholes on mega banks and corporations from 4pm to 7pm at City Hall.