Jan./Feb. 2001 - VOLUME 22 - NUMBER 1 & 2
W i n n i n g C a m p a i g n s
A Clean Sweep: Justice for Janitors
By Carter Wright
"I have four daughters and what we earn is practically nothing," said janitor Francisco Diaz, as he and 8,500 other janitors in Los Angeles went on strike in April. "That's why we are striking. Not just for my family, but for the families of everybody who is striking."
The strike began April 3, when the janitors walked out of high rises in downtown Los Angeles, demanding higher wages from the cleaning contractors who employ them. For the next three weeks, the janitors marched and chanted in noisy demonstrations by day and patrolled picket lines by night. To show their determination, the strikers joined community and religious leaders, politicians and other supporters in actions that blocked traffic in major intersections. LAPD police wore riot gear just about any time they went near the strikers.
When the cleaning contractors refused to compromise in negotiations, the union gradually ratcheted up the pressure by expanding the strike to other areas of Los Angeles County.
Although Los Angeles is not considered a "union town," the strike received overwhelming public support because the issues at stake were clear.
Several local elected officials were arrested at the janitors' demonstrations. Cardinal Roger Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, celebrated a special mass for the janitors, and even Republican Mayor Richard Riordan voiced his support for the union.
The Los Angeles janitors stayed off the job until April 22, when they won a contract that guarantees raises totaling 22 to 26 percent over the next three years.
The Los Angeles janitors strike was the opening to a nationwide Justice for Janitors 2000 campaign undertaken by approximately 100,000 janitors - many of them women, most of them immigrants - who are members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The campaign successfully sought to raise standards for the people who clean, sweep and mop about 4,000 U.S. commercial real estate properties in 30 different real estate markets. The janitors won some important gains, including breakthroughs that will increase wages, expand health care benefits and help restore full-time jobs.
With a real estate industry flush from a series of boom years, the SEIU janitors focused their demands on wages and health insurance (the SEIU janitors in Los Angeles had won fully paid health care coverage for their families in previous contract fights, and so focused their attention on wages). The companies had plenty of money to share: one major building owner, Equity Office Properties Trust, pulled down $431.3 million in profits in 1999 alone - a 24 percent increase over the previous year.
The raises won in Los Angeles and elsewhere will help janitors lift their families out of poverty, which was a major goal of the national "Justice for Janitors 2000" campaign. That means restoring standards that had been in place for janitorial work up until the early 1980s, when the real estate industry schemed to slash wages and benefits for the people who clean its buildings.
Throughout the 1980s, large real estate owners sought to shed costs by contracting cleaning services out to building service contractors, who competed by pushing down wages and underbidding rival contractors. If the union asked building owners for a raise, the owners shrugged off any responsibility and passed the buck on to the contractors that technically employed the workers. When the union went to confront the contractor, it would claim it couldn't afford a raise because the owner paid so little for cleaning services.
This maneuvering touched off a downward spiral of wage and benefit cuts that devastated janitors' livelihoods. In 1983, the average janitor in Los Angeles earned $7.07 per hour ($11.90 in 1999 dollars) and full health insurance for their families. Just three years later, the average wage had plummeted to $4.50, ($6.65 in 1999 dollars). Meanwhile, most janitors lost their health insurance.
At first, the union was simply overwhelmed by the aggressive tactics of the larger owners and contractors. But starting in the late 1980s, SEIU janitors began to fight back under the banner of "Justice for Janitors," a campaign that employed militant and direct action tactics against owners and contractors. Central to the Justice for Janitors strategy was an effort to hold owners accountable for wages, even if they used contractors to handle their cleaning work. To make sure owners couldn't dodge their responsibility to workers by hiding behind contractors, janitors reached out to build community coalitions to pressure the entire industry.
The national scale of Justice for Janitors 2000 marked a major step forward for the union. Large real estate companies are increasingly nationalizing their operations. A major owner like Equity Office controls 104 buildings in 12 cities. Cushman & Wakefield owns 153 buildings in 14 cities. Likewise, contractors such as American Building maintenance and OneSource are now national firms. To gain leverage at a national scale, SEIU local unions negotiated to have as many contracts as possible expire during 2000. Then the union worked to coordinate a national bargaining strategy, especially when negotiating with the same company in different markets.
After the decisive April victory in Los Angeles, SEIU janitors pushed ahead to maintain the momentum across the rest of the country. In San Diego, downtown janitors went on strike and four volunteers staged a 10-day hunger strike to help win a contract that will extend health care benefits for janitors and their families.
Health insurance was also a key issue in Chicago. Union janitors working in the city's suburban office parks had no health insurance, while janitors working downtown enjoyed full family coverage. In late April, suburban janitors went on strike to narrow the gap. After a two-week walkout, they won a contract that will provide them with health care benefits and reduce the wage disparity between downtown and the suburbs.
After Los Angeles, San Diego and Chicago, it was clear that SEIU janitors were ready to strike and knew how to win. Rather than face more strikes, employers began to agree to settlements that met the janitors' goals. In New York City, thousands of janitors and doormen participated in a massive Park Avenue rally, after which they quickly won a contract that included an innovative breakthrough: access to low-cost computers and free computer training.
In Cleveland, SEIU janitors made it a priority to force contractors to turn part-time jobs into full-time positions. The contract they won included significant wage increases and more full-time jobs. With the raises won in the new contract, janitors moving into full-time jobs from part-time work will be able to boost their income by $7,000 to $9,000 per year.
The campaign ended with a final major strike, this time in Connecticut. In October, janitors in Hartford and Stamford went on strike and staged civil disobedience protests to win their contracts. In Stamford, after a six-week walkout, the contractors were forced to accept the union - which they previously refused to recognize - and bargain for a contract.
In all of these cases, building broad public support was vital to sustaining the strikes. Building alliances with community-based organizations and religious groups has been particularly important to the janitors' success.
Further negotiations may be more difficult. If the economy slips into recession, the industry will again see cutting janitors' paychecks as an easy way to shore up its bottom line.
SEIU President Andrew Stern called Justice for Janitors 2000 "the first struggle about defining justice in the twenty-first century." To build a union that can defend and expand on the gains won in 2000, SEIU janitors will step up efforts to unite with their counterparts in cities where workers currently have no voice. Most janitors in the United States do not belong to SEIU or any union. The booming new business hubs of the U.S. South, like Atlanta and Charlotte, are entirely non-union and janitors there usually can't hope to be paid very much above the minimum wage. Benefits are rare.
With the goal of building a stronger union, SEIU negotiated provisions in some contracts that will make it easier for non-union janitors to join the union. They won commitments from contractors that the companies will not interfere when non-union janitors want to join the union.
Still, it will require a massive effort to make headway in the many non-union markets. But the Justice for Janitors campaign has demonstrated over the years that it can overcome tremendous obstacles.