By Sheri Williams
Members of Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW) joined First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom and other legislative leaders in April to honor Denim Day, which raises awareness about sexual violence.
The union members attending the Capitol event were part of the Ya Basta Center, an organization that provides training and support about sexual violence in the workplace.
Union member Veronica Lagunas spoke in Spanish at the event, encouraging workers to continue their fight and highlighting the progress the group has made.
“I am the owner of my body,” she told the crowd, eliciting cheers. “Ya Basta!”
First partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom also spoke.
“I never asked to join this club, none of us did,” she said. “Today, standing here with all of you on Denim Day, I feel fully the collective power that we have as a community of survivors.”
The phrase Ya Basta, which means “enough” in English, came out of a 2015 campaign by janitorial workers with SEIU to end sexual violence against nightshift workers, who often work alone and are particularly vulnerable to attack. The campaign was sparked by the investigative documentary, “Rape on the Nightshift.”
After the documentary aired, the union surveyed its members and found that about half said they had faced sexual violence on the job.
In addition to the isolation of working alone, many female janitorial workers said they are undocumented and have language barriers, which makes reporting sexual violence hard.
In 2016, members of Ya Basta helped pass legislation that requires janitorial employers to register with the state and provide sexual harassment training that includes worker input. In 2018, union members staged a 100-mile march to further that legislation with a new bill that would require that education to be conducted by peers, to better reach this vulnerable demographic. That legislation was vetoed by then-Governor Jerry Brown, but the fighters of Ya Basta did not give up.
In 2019, they won passage of the Janitor Survivor Empowerment Act, which increased peer training. That effort expanded even further to include the Ya Basta Center in Sacramento, which provides peer-to-peer training and support for janitorial workers throughout the state. There are more than 200,000 such workers in California.
This year, the union is fighting to pass AB 250 which would combat wage theft, prevent sexual assault and promote health and safety training for contracted janitors and security officers in the public sector.
Denim Day is an annual event to raise awareness of sexual violence and stigma. It originated in Italy in the 1980s after an infamous rape case in which a conviction was overturned because the court ruled that a woman wearing jeans could not have been forcibly raped, since removing the jeans would have required her help. Women throughout Italy, including lawmakers, protested the biased and unfair ruling and began wearing jeans in protest. The movement grew to an international one, a reminder of bias against sexual assault survivors both in courtrooms and in society.