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By Wendy Soderburg '82

Published Jul 30, 2013 2:34 PM


Aida Cardenas ’96 enables low-wage workers across California, including many janitors, to improve their quality of life.

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Aida Cardenas ’96

Mayra Tovias, a 48-year-old wife and mother of four, worked as a janitor for more than 20 years in downtown Los Angeles before she decided it was time to improve her station. She turned to Building Skills Partnership (BSP), a nonprofit organization led by Executive Director Aida Cardenas ’96, whose goal is to improve the quality of life for immigrant janitors and other low-wage workers at work sites across California.

Through BSP, Tovias took classes in computer literacy, English as a Second Language, and citizenship. Now the soft-spoken Guatemala native has left janitorial work far behind and taken a position as an internal organizer for Service Employees International Union–United Service Workers West (SEIU–USWW). And she’s motivated her husband, Oscar — also a janitor — to take BSP classes.

“This way, members have a chance, especially now that a lot of schools are closing their programs,” Tovias says of BSP. “At least we have one door open to us.”

BSP is the result of a unique labor-management collaboration among property owners, building service companies and the SEIU–USWW. It trains more than 2,000 property-service workers annually at such high-profile companies as Century Plaza Towers, City National Sony Studios and Yahoo! in Los Angeles, and Google, Cisco, Microsoft and Adobe in Silicon Valley.

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Workers take vocational classes and other training (civic engagement, literacy, health and wellness, parent education) on paid work time — usually during night shifts — to prepare for jobs vacated by retiring baby boomers. Once these workers get promoted, their entry-level jobs become available to the unemployed.

BSP’s Cardenas, the daughter of working-class parents from Mexico, majored in history at UCLA and minored in labor studies. “As part of my labor studies minor, I participated in a research project for the Teamsters during their [1996] Mission/Guerrero tortilla workers’ campaign and strike,” she says. “It opened my eyes to connecting research and strategy and academia with helping working people.”

Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, remembers his former student with pride. “Aida became an organizer for the Justice for Janitors union in Los Angeles,” he says. “I would see her at all of the major labor demonstrations and conferences. She had found her element. She was embraced by the janitors and won the respect of her colleagues for her hard work and dedication.”

As the Southern California staff director for SEIU–USWW in 2004, Cardenas started the discussions that would eventually lead to the formation of BSP, which has since expanded to six regions: Oakland/San Francisco, San Jose/Silicon Valley, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. But while the organization has served as a model for similar programs across the country, Cardenas says there is still a great need to reach more service workers within California.

Workers like Mayra Tovias, who in March realized another dream: She was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.

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