For the past 18 months, about a dozen custodians have regularly gathered downtown during lunch to hand out leaflets outside the buildings they clean.

Their demands: a living wage and affordable health care.

Local 49 of the Service Employees International Union has been working since November 2004 with these dozen custodians and nearly 200 others as part of a national campaign to unionize employees working for ServiceMaster.

In the local fight to unionize ServiceMaster of Swan Island's employees, the union says there's one building magnate who treats workers fairly and one who doesn't.

The villain in the union's eyes is Melvin Mark Inc., which contracts with ServiceMaster to clean most of its 1.4 million square feet of downtown Portland properties. Mark is taking a hands-off approach to workers' gripes with ServiceMaster, which include lack of raises since August 2004 and anger at ServiceMaster's refusal to let many work full-time.

Most ServiceMaster employees are limited to four-hour shifts at $7.50 to $8.25 per hour. The average full-time union custodian makes $9.85 to $10 per hour.

Melvin Mark CEO M. James Mark says how ServiceMaster treats its employees isn't his concern and refuses to comment further. Mark's father and company chair, M. "Pete" Mark, a big-bucks benefactor of the Portland Art Museum and Republican campaigns for President Bush and U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, also would not comment.

Barbara Neyland, co-owner of the Swan Island franchise and a former janitor herself, did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment.

One person who would comment is John Russell, a hero for Local 49 and owner of the Russell Development Co. Inc.

Russell, a former Melvin Mark partner and ex-general manager of Melvin Mark Inc., owns 200 Market Place, home to 384,000 square feet of retail space that is cleaned and maintained by union janitors.

Russell has a contract with Atlanta-based One Source, which pays its custodians the higher union wages and benefits.

But to make the deal a little sweeter, Russell has made it a policy to pay his custodians $1 per hour over union wages.

When asked about how his former boss handles janitors, Russell hesitated before saying, "It is blind to what it means to show up for a swing shift, work real hard for eight hours and not be able to have a living wage and not be able to support a family on that income."

No one is trying to make Russell out to be a saint. But the man has a point, one that ServiceMaster employee Juana Peleco agrees with.

The 46-year-old single mother from Guatemala lives in Portland with her 9-year-old daughter and tries to help out her father and 19-year-old son in Central America.

Peleco says she has constantly made requests for more work and been told there is none. After five years with the company, Peleco makes $8.36 per hour.

"All we want is security," Peleco says, "respect and more pay to support our families."