Four Years of Class War End in a Union Contract
by David Bacon
SACRAMENTO, CA (4/2/99) -- One of the longest-running organizing drives in California history came to a conclusion last week when Somers Building Maintenance signed a union contract in Sacramento. The epic struggle of a dogged group of Sacramento janitors had gone on for four years. Pitting the national Justice for Janitors campaign of the Service Employees International Union against a company union, the campaign saw mass arrests on the state capitol mall, beatings of union supporters, the firing of the Western Region representative of the U.S. Secretary of Labor, Republican-led Congressional hearings and an eleven-day march to the shareholders meeting of Hewlett-Packard, the computer giant in Cupertino.
"This was a relentless company," said Mike Garcia, president of Service Employees Local 1877. "We had to fight harder than with any other we've ever faced. But we're even more relentless."
After Local 1877 successfully organized 20,000 workers in the building service industry in Los Angeles and the Bay Area in the early 1990s, it began unionizing efforts in Sacramento. There it came up against Somers, the capitol's largest building service company with 600 employees. Many union activists believe that sophisticated tactics the company pioneered were later used against unions elsewhere.
Somers workers began signing union cards in the spring of 1995. "Even though I work full time, I only earn $12,500 per year," explained Somers janitor Marta Villalobos. "I have no health insurance for my four kids, and my husband and I live in fear that any unexpected illness will put us on the street."
Organizers explained to them that Local 1877 had won better wages in Silicon Valley, Alameda County and Los Angeles by organizing a majority of building service companies. Previously, contractors there competed against each other, trying to win cleaning contracts with large building owners by cutting wages and benefits. Union agreements standardized wages, taking them out of competition.
After winning workers' support, Local 1877 asked Somers to acknowledge that a majority had signed union cards, and recognize the union. The union sought to avoid the National Labor Relations Board process, since it normally involves lengthy legal battles, intimidation and firings.
The company refused. According to spokesperson Randall Schaber, Somers wanted a labor board election, and hired the west coast's best-known anti-union law firm, Littler, Mendelssohn, Fastiff and Tichy. "Our employees don't want a union at all," Schaber told this reporter at the time.
While refusing to recognize Local 1877, an ex-supervisor began going through buildings cleaned by Somers at night, collecting signatures on cards for Couriers and Service Employees Local 1, a hitherto unknown union unaffiliated with the AFL-CIO. After a few weeks, Somers management told workers it had recognized Local 1 because a majority had signed cards, and agreed to a contract with no wage increases.
In September 1996, Isidro Camarillo, a Somers janitor supporting Local 1877, was attacked at night in one of Hewlett-Packard's buildings by Crisanto Martinez, a Local 1 steward. On October 27 Luis Camarillo, another 1877 supporter, was beaten in an H-P building as well.
Eventually, the National Labor Relations Board found that Local 1 was a company union, and invalidated its agreement with Somers. Company unions later surfaced to fight the United Farm Workers in its big campaign to organize Watsonville strawberry workers, in a strategy UFW strategists believe was imported from Sacramento.
Meanwhile, Somers' war with Local 1877 continued.
Justice for Janitors built a community coalition to pressure Hewlett-Packard into taking responsibility for the low wages and conditions of the workers, and into halting the anti-union tactics used by its contractor. Hewlett-Packard is Somers' largest client, using the firm to clean five Sacramento-area buildings.
Marlene Somsak, a public relations spokesperson for Hewlett-Packard, says the company opposed this corporate campaign, which she referred to as "the use of neutral parties as battlegrounds."
Republican politicians in Washington DC lined up behind H-P, in an effort to outlaw the campaign tactics used by the janitors. In 1996, Michigan Republican Pete Hoekstra accused Department of Labor representative Richard Sawyer of intervening with Hewlett Packard on behalf of the union, and got then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich to fire him. Hoekstra's government oversight committee held hearings on the Somers case, using it as an example of the need to outlaw union corporate campaign tactics.
According to Art Pulaski, executive secretary of the California Labor Federation, the hearings gave the labor movement a big stake in beating Somers. "This isn't just a fight in one company," he said. "The effort to deny janitors the right to their union is part of a larger rightwing strategy, using the political process to make it impossible for other workers to organize."
Sacramento city politicians were originally hostile to the workers' efforts, due in part to the Shaber's record as an influential Democratic Party fundraiser. In 1997, Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna and city authorities prohibited janitors' marches through the streets. Pulaski and other labor leaders were arrested en masse as they paraded on the K Street mall in the union's support.
Serna eventually felt so much political heat that he reluctantly offered to mediate a settlement between Somers and the union, and publicly criticized the company when it rebuffed his offer.
Finally, janitors marched last year for eleven days from Sacramento to Cupertino, to bring their case before Hewlett-Packard's annual stockholders meeting. The combined pressure of Local 1877's varied tactics was enough to begin an arduous negotiation process, which resulted in last week's agreement.
The new contract lifts wages 25¢ immediately, with another 20¢ in November. In the course of the four-year campaign, the company began offering sick leave and medical benefits, which were incorporated into the agreement. "It's not everything we hoped for, but it finally establishes the union's relationship with the company," explained janitor Hilda Avila. "Next time we can go back and get things we couldn't get this time."
The contract expires in 2000, at the same time as other building service agreements nationally. The union is planning a campaign for a national master contract, which would tie conditions together and then raise them at companies throughout the country.
Although Local 1877 members clean H-P's main Silicon Valley complex, relations between the company and the union grew so bitter that its Sacramento buildings were excluded from the Somers contract. Nevertheless, the pact sets up a process in which those and other non-union buildings can become unionized. The Somers contract had an immediate effect on other Sacramento contractors as well, two of whom signed agreements the day after the Somers contract was unveiled.
A joint statement by the union and the company concluded that "we are cautiously optimistic that this agreement between Somers and SEIU is in the interest of all parties." They warned "there remain points of disagreement, but these are outweighed by the fundamentals upon which both sides agree."
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