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Ana Cruz is no Norma Rae. But the Mount Pleasant resident, who cleans office buildings for a living, believes she knows a crooked deal when she sees one. “[Positive Service Partners] violated the law,” Cruz says evenly. “[They] were supposed to give us work.”

Late last year, the janitorial company Positive Service Partners won a cleaning contract away from Cruz’s union employer, American Building Maintenance (ABM). Under D.C. law, Positive was expected to provide jobs to Cruz and other interested ABM janitors. But no jobs were forthcoming, and Cruz—an 8-year ABM veteran—was unemployed for two months. Now, with help from Local 82 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), she and six colleagues are suing Positive for violating D.C.’s Displaced Workers Protection Act.

Until Positive took over ABM’s contract, Cruz was assigned to a property at 777 North Capitol St. Every weeknight from 6 to 10 p.m. she tidied offices on the building’s sixth floor. Afterward Cruz, a single mother, returned home to her chubby, brown-eyed toddler and 13-year-old son.

In September 1995, Local 82 and ABM negotiated their first citywide labor contract. Things were looking up for Cruz: She and the other janitors received an immediate pay hike from $5.25 per hour (D.C.’s minimum) to either $5.50 or $5.70, depending on their tenure with the company. They also received sick days and funeral leave for the first time, plus two additional paid holidays and a guarantee of future wage and benefit increases. For D.C. janitors, of whom fewer than half are union members, the deal wasn’t too shabby.

Four months later, Quadrangle Management Corp., 777 North Capitol’s manager, terminated ABM’s contract. Coincidence? Like every other event in this saga, it depends who you ask. Some observers say Positive is a spinoff of United States Service Industries (USSI), a local janitorial company with a history of anti-union activity, and that Quadrangle simply wanted nonunion janitors. “I think that Quadrangle’s biggest concern is finding the cheapest possible contractor,” says Local 82 organizer Lynne Turner.

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Quadrangle begs to differ. “This was not about replacing a company with a union contract with a company that does not have a union contract,” says Quadrangle counsel Elise Rabekoff. The real problem, she says, was poor performance. “There was great dissatisfaction with the job that ABM was doing.” Cruz, in turn, says her crew was never criticized for substandard work.

Whatever the reason, Quadrangle and representatives of the building’s owners (the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, International City/County Management Association [ICMA], and ICMA Retirement Corp.) agreed to terminate ABM’s contract. They also, Rabekoff says, established a “goal…to replace ABM with a minority-owned business.” Positive Service Partners submitted a bid; its African-American president, Marian Selby, told Quadrangle she owned 51 percent of the cleaning company. “For our purposes,” says Rabekoff, “that was what we needed to know.” Quadrangle gave ABM one month’s notice on Jan. 1, 1996.

Theoretically, Cruz and her colleagues didn’t have to worry about losing their jobs. D.C.’s Displaced Workers Protection Act required ABM to give Positive Service Partners a list of the janitors who wished to stay on at 777 North Capitol; Positive was to hire them. But ABM, whose officers refused to comment for this article, never sent Positive the list of workers, and Positive never provided the jobs.

Local 82 organizer Maria Naranjo had anticipated this trouble, and took it upon herself to fax the list of workers to Positive. On Feb. 2, she and the ABM janitors showed up at 777 North Capitol to reclaim their jobs. There, Selby told them the positions had already been filled—a patent lie, according to Naranjo. “[Non-ABM applicants] went the very day the turnover happened and got a job,” she says.

Why didn’t Positive hire the ABM janitors? Positive won’t say, but Naranjo thinks she knows: If Selby had hired all those who wanted to stay on, they would have easily accounted for a majority of her crew, thus invoking a National Labor Relations Board law requiring her “to negotiate [a union contract] with SEIU.” Given her competitive bid, which asked Quadrangle for less compensation than ABM received under the prior contract, Selby may have felt she couldn’t afford to hire Cruz and the others. (Selby did not respond to phone calls or faxes about the matter.)

In late March, Cruz and six other ABM janitors filed suit against Positive and Quadrangle. Their case comes before Judge Henry Kennedy on July 5; they seek back pay, back benefits, and jobs. In an intriguing twist, the janitors’ suit also names USSI (a firm that provides janitorial services to Harbour Place, Metropolitan Square, and dozens of other District properties) as a defendant. According to the complaint, Positive Service Partners is a “fictitious name” and is “wholly owned and controlled by USSI.” “Positive had no separate identity,” says the janitors’ union lawyer, Diana Ceresi.

Local 82 backs up this claim with an impressive array of facts and circumstantial evidence. Positive Service Partners and USSI go way back: Marian Selby was an assistant vice president at USSI and worked there as recently as February 1995; Richard Gallaher, listed on Quadrangle’s termination letter to ABM as Positive’s contact, is a current USSI employee; and Fernando Garcia, Positive’s site manager at 777 North Capitol, is also on USSI’s payroll. The two organizations have a few more things in common: They share a mailing address at 1424 K St. NW, USSI’s receptionist takes messages for Positive employees, Positive janitors at 777 North Capitol who quit their jobs pick up their final checks at USSI’s offices, and at least two other area janitorial firms (Columbia Maintenance Services and Aerostar Services) share a street address and personnel with USSI. Lastly, there’s a mysterious lack of documentation on Positive: As of May 6, the firm still was not listed as either a corporation or foreign agent (i.e., out-of-state corporation) in the District, and had not obtained a certificate of occupancy. Positive did not obtain a D.C. tax identification number until Feb. 29, and is not listed either in the Yellow Pages or business directories.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is interested in the relationships between Positive and USSI. According to an NLRB petition currently under review by the U.S. Court of Appeals, USSI has “engag[ed] in virtually every type of unlawful coercion conceivable” to prevent unions from organizing its workers. “If USSI is wearing a mask called Positive Service Partners, and, through that entity, engages in unlawful hiring practices,” says NLRB attorney Bill Mascioli, “it might constitute contempt of the court’s judgment.”

Local 82’s Naranjo adds her own two bits about USSI. “There are other nonunion [janitorial] companies, but [USSI] is the worst I’ve ever seen,” she says.

Cruz and the other ABM janitors may feel sorry for themselves, but they should be thankful they’re not among the nonunion janitors currently working for Selby. Just one month after being hired to clean 777 North Capitol, six janitors struck Positive to protest $5.25-per-hour wages, zero sick leave or vacation days, and harassment of union sympathizers. Rabekoff says Selby assured Quadrangle that her janitors are paid more than minimum wage and receive benefits. “I would check [your] facts if I were you,” Rabekoff advises.

Before the strike was over, two strikers quit their jobs, succumbing to rumors they would not be welcomed back. Four returned to work after their two-week absence, but only one remains today. Local 82 staff and members continue to picket the building once or twice a week. Ana Cruz, meanwhile, is working for ABM at another building downtown.

Both Quadrangle and USSI have filed motions to dismiss the janitors’ lawsuit, but attorney Ceresi is certain the motions will be shot down. “USSI is arguing it didn’t get notice early enough from ABM,” she says, “which I think is just a bunch of…I won’t add the last word there.”—Scott Barancik