Oral Histories

Interview of Mayra Tovias

Immigrant from Guatemala. Involved in the Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign.
Donde Haiga un Trabajador Explotado, Ahí Estaré Yo: Justice for Janitors' Workers, Organizers, and Allies
Social Movements
Labor Movement
Biographical Note:
Immigrant from Guatemala. Involved in the Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign.
Gomez, Andrew
Tovias, Mayra
Persons Present:
Tovias and Gomez.
Place Conducted:
SEIU-USWW Local 1877 Union Hall in Los Angeles, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by, Andrew Gomez, a Ph.D. student in UCLA’s history department with a specialization in United States working-class history. Gomez prepared for the interview by reading Tom Waldman’s Not Much Left:The Fate of Liberalism in America, David Halle’s New York & Los Angeles: Politics, Society, and Culture: A Comparative View, Raphael Sonenshein’s Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles, Ruth Milkman’s L.A. story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement, Lydia Savage’s Justice for Janitors in Los Angeles and various archival articles from the Los Angeles Times.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. Tovias was then given an opportunity to review the transcript and made a number of corrections and additions. Those corrections were entered into the text without further editing or review on the part of the Center for Oral History Research staff. Gomez compiled the table of contents and interview history and supplied the spellings of proper nouns and the complete names entered in brackets in the text.Tovias provided the biographical information at the front of the transcript.
2 hrs.
Interviewee Retained Copyright
Series Statement:
This series documents the Justice for Janitors movement in Los Angeles from the 1980s through the early 2000s. Justice for Janitors is a labor organization of the Service Employees International Union that has historically sought to improve the working conditions and bargaining power of workers in the janitorial services industry. The movement has taken various forms in different cities, with Los Angeles serving as the largest center of activity. By including interviews with labor organizers, politicians, and rank-and-file members, the series aims to offer a comprehensive picture of the Justice for Janitors movement in Los Angeles. In addition to documenting Justice for Janitors, the series also explores many of the participants' experiences in Central America before immigrating to the U.S. and interviewees' involvement in other facets of the labor movement in the U.S. and Central America. This project was generously supported by Arcadia funds.
Early memories of San Raimundo, Guatemala and her family—San Raimundo's poverty and recollections of the community—Indigenous community and her family's move to Chimaltenango—Mother's work in the cotton industry and her involvement in a local labor union—Remembering her family and their political and religious affiliations—Memories of Guatemalan Civil War and the general state of terror in the country—The desaparecido phenomenon—Recollections of giving religious classes to the indigenous community—Her time in an evangelical school—Secretary work and working at her mother's cotton factory—Witnessing injustice in the factory—Union activity and its dangers during the civil war—Decision to leave to the United States and her migration experience—Initial memories of Los Angeles—Experience with other Latin American immigrants in Los Angeles—Finding work as a house cleaner and being exploited—Feeling alienated as an immigrant and fearing local authorities—Bringing her husband and children to the United States—Early work cleaning buildings and lack of union organization—First experiences with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Rios Montt and his recent charges for war crimes in Guatemala—First experiences with SEIU 399 organizers—Century City marches and major actions—Fear among union workers for being undocumented—Relationship between African Americans and Latinos in the work place—Strategizing for big marches in 1990—Relationship with police and local community members—Memories of the major marches during the 1990 strike—Internal dissension in the union—Arrival of Mike Garcia as new union leader—Lead up to the 2000 strike—Her experiences as shop steward in organizing workers for the strike—Memories of the three-week protest in 2000—Major strikes and the toll it took on her family—Retaliation against non-striking workers after the strike—The role of women in the union and their dynamic with male rank and file members—Thoughts on most recent 2012 contract negotiations—The challenges of organizing during an economic recession—The immigration debate in Los Angeles and its connection to the labor movement—Shift from worker to organizer—The future of the union and lasting memories of her more than twenty year experience with the SEIU.