Shortly before noon, about 20 to 25 chanting janitorial workers and union organizers tried to gain access to the mall's business offices near the food court. A scuffle broke out between the demonstrators and five security guards who were blocking access to the offices.
"It just got out of hand," said Blanca Perez, 72, a former janitor at the food court. "The security guards were pushing people out, manhandling women, pepper-spraying people. It was like a heat-of-the-moment thing."
Hayward police arrived on the scene shortly after the scuffle.
"The demonstrators left peaceably," Lt. ReidLindblom said. "No arrests were made. There were no reports of physical injuries other than irritation to the eyes from the pepper spray. Everyone left under their own power, as we understood it."
The union organized the demonstration against General Growth Properties, which owns Southland mall. SEIU has been attempting to unionize janitors nationwide at malls owned by General Growth Properties, the second-largest owner, developer and manager of shopping centers in the country.
Kevin O'Donnell, a spokesman for the union, said the demonstrators at the mall were there to voice grievances regarding alleged civil rights abuses committed by General Growth Properties against employees.
"In the course of forming their union, they've been met with interrogation, intimidation, discrimination, censorship. You've had mall janitors who have been prohibited from talking to union organizers."
O'Donnell said that as a result of the scuffle with the security guards, janitors Maricela Flores and Sonia Sharwood and union organizer Raul Cardenas were taken to Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Hayward to be treated for impaired vision, pain in the limbs and difficulty breathing.
General Growth Properties spokesman David Keating said that the demonstration at the mall went too far.
"They basically stormed the shopping center, chanting and yelling and frightening a lot of parents and children. They tried to storm the management's office. This is all part of a national smear campaign against General Growth. Frankly, what they did at Southland was unacceptable."
Keating said janitors at malls owned by General Growth Properties work for third-party contractors. He said his company hires contractors that compensate janitors fairly and provide workers with health insurance and a complaint resolution process.
Perez said she started working at the Southland mall food court 10 years ago as a janitor for the Millard Co. The 51-year San Leandro resident said she worked four days a week "to keep her mind busy" after her husband died. She said she started out at $7.50 an hour and was making $11 an hour without benefits when she was terminated on Oct. 19.
She said she participated in the demonstration on Thursday because she did not accept the reason her supervisor gave her for her termination, which was an unspecified discrepancy on her timecard.
Perez was not injured in the scuffle. She said, "I don't know what to think. Something like this has never happened to me before. People need someone to fight for them when they're up against big corporations like this. I would like to see people protected and happy with their jobs."