David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Los Angeles Janitors Leave Local 399
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES (2/12/97) - On March 17, after seven years of rebuilding their union, Service Employees Local 399, Los Angeles janitors are leaving it. Together with janitors from Silicon Valley, Oakland and Sacramento, they are joining to create one of the largest building service unions in the country - Local 1877.

Rosa Ayala, who's been through L.A.'s labor wars as a 399 veteran, sees the step as a watershed which may finally result in janitors achieving what most would see as a normal standard of living - moving away from the exploited life of the building service underclass. "Janitors are poor," she says. "But united we will be stronger."

The 1990s have been filled with turmoil for southland janitors. In the mid-1980s, their union was broken, as cleaning contractors dumped their organized workforce and broke their bargaining agreements.

After five years of war in the office buildings, janitors rebuilt their organization. They marched, demonstrated, sat in, fasted and in general conducted their organizing battles so far out in public they became a symbol of the labor militance of L.A.'s immigrant workers.

But the battle of the janitors isn't over yet. Instead, the year 2000 is shaping up as a major test of strength between building service unions up and down the west coast, and the corporations which employ them. "Only those who grow are strong," says Ayala. "We plan to be large enough and strong enough when the time comes to make a big change in our lives."

In almost every major urban center, janitors' union locals face the same huge contractors. Companies like Able Building Maintanence clean hundreds of buildings across the country. ISS, another contractor, is a major multinational corporation with operations in Europe and other countries.

In last year's contract negotiations, SEIU's building service unions won potentially much greater bargaining leverage against these companies. They lined up the expiration dates for almost all the union contracts which cover the cleaning of office buildings from California to Washington.

They expire in the spring of 2000.

A common expiration date means that janitors unions will be negotiating with the same companies at the same time, in many different cities. Instead of negotiating separate agreements in each city, with great variations in wages and conditions, the union is taking the first step in pursuing a master agreement to cover everyone. If there is a strike or other test of strength, it could easily spread to affect all the building service workers on the coast, from Wilshire Boulevard to Seattle's Space Needle.

"What we're looking for is industrial power," says Mike Garcia, Local 1877 president. "We have to deal with building services as a whole industry. It's not just a group of small contractors, different in every city. The contractors are often the same. And the client companies, who the contractors work for, are some of the largest in the world - like Pacific Bell, Chevron, and Southern California Edison. They change cleaning contractors like socks. So the only way to really change conditions, and protect our members, is to have the same set of wages and conditions for everyone."

Winning the common expiration date was not easy, nor was it universally accepted by all janitors' locals on the west coast. In Alameda County, Local 1877 had to organize rolling strikes through the fall to win an agreement. While members won wage raises and better medical benefits, these issues weren't the sticking point. The expiration date was the problem, and in the end, the contractors were forced to agree. In San Diego and Seattle, they won the year 2000 without a strike, but job actions were necessary to get it in Denver as well.

In San Francisco, however, SEIU Local 87 struck some buildings near the waterfront for one night, but in the end agreed to a contract which will expire a year earlier than the rest of those on the coast. In part, this reflects the fact that the city's janitors are the highest paid in the country outside of New York City. Basically, 87's members felt they had less to gain from joint negotiations, and were unwilling to strike for the common date.

But the overall strategy for pursuing joint bargaining in 2000 also requires local unions to give up some of their autonomy - their ability to decide on their own bargaining demands, and to control negotiations on a local level. Local 87 janitors were unwilling to do that.

In some unions which negotiate together for the whole west coast, such as the longshoremen, members from different cities elect delegates to a coastwide caucus. Delegates then agree on the contract demands, elect a negotiating committee, and bind the committee to the demands. A similar structure for joint bargaining among janitors has yet to be set in place.

Nevertheless, for most janitors, the potential gains are very clear. Ayala notes that in the Los Angeles basin, wages vary a lot from area to area. Outside of downtown, where the workers start at $7.10 an hour, the base rate falls to $5.80, and even to minimum wage in San Fernando Valley. Downtown janitors have a medical plan which covers their whole family. In the buildings along the Wilshire corridor, and in Beverly Hills and Westwood, janitors only have individual coverage.

"What we have isn't enough even in the higher areas, and we have to generalize the conditions, so we have one industry, one union, and one contract," Ayala explains. "These contractors are powerful multi-million dollar companies. We can bring ourselves up, but only if we struggle against them, not just in Los Angeles, but in all of California and beyond. We can't win unless we act together."

The ability to move toward coastwide negotiations is a testament to the success of the Justice for Janitors organizing strategy. Joint bargaining is only possible if the union already represents most workers in the industry. Ten years ago, Local 399 couldn't say that, nor could 1877.

Over that decade, Local 399 has been one of the labor movement's success stories. In the mid-1980s the picture looked very different. At that time, the city's big real estate and development interests had effectively broken the local in building services. Using the enormous influx of immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America as a wedge, building owners and janitorial contractors dumped their old, union workforce, and hired immigrants at rock bottom wages, with no union contract.

While the move lowered costs in the short term, contractors severely underestimated the potential militance and pro-union sympathies of their new workforce. Local 399 regrouped itself, and set up a new organizing department. Its organizers began using tactics developed by SEIU's national campaign, Justice for Janitors, contributing new thinking to them as well.

In 1989 the tide turned for the union, when the LA Police Department cornered a janitors' march among the skyscrapers of Century City which they clean every night, and beat the hell out of the participants. The police riot, eventually denounced even by Mayor Bradley, won the union the support it needed to regain its contracts, which now cover the largest of the city's janitorial contractors.

The Century City riot also set the tone for the organizing tactics which became the hallmark of Justice for Janitors. No longer did the union try to hold labor board elections, a process many unions feel has become totally dominated by employers. Instead, 399 used the direct pressure of demonstrations, sit-ins and civil disobedience in building lobbies, even blocking traffic on major thoroughfares. The union went after the whole building service industry, instead of individual contractors. These new tactics brought the needs of some of the city's poorest workers directly to the doorstep of some of its most powerful citizens - the building owners themselves. L.A.'s labor activists watched in admiration, and picked up the same strategy for other conflicts.

Janitors' tactics relied on the militance of immigrant workers. Local 399's organizers mobilized them again and again, bringing them into the street to win contracts. They drew on the traditions and experience of workers who faced down government terror in El Salvador or Guatamala. They appealed to workers who learned, as children in Mexico, that while they have a right to a fair share of the wealth of society, they have to fight to get it.

Eliseo Medina, SEIU's executive vice-president for the western U.S., says that, "when you come from a country where they shoot you for being a unionist or a striker, getting fired from your job doesn't seem so bad. Immigrants from Central America have a much more militant history as unionists than we do, and the more militant workers are, the more the union can do."

Having rebuilt the janitors union in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, the only major area now in California where the janitor's union doesn't represent a clear majority is Sacramento. Local 1877 started a major Justice for Janitors campaign in the state capitol two years ago, and is currently locked in an all-out fight with the city's major contractor, Somers Building Maintanence.

When Local 399's janitors voted on the proposal last December to move to Local 1877, the tally was 1900 to 200 in favor. Mike Garcia interprets the vote as a move away from the turmoil which engulfed the union in the wake of elections two years ago. In 1995 an insurgent group captured the union's executive board, and became locked in a bitter power struggle with its president, Jim Zellers. After a series of unfruitful negotiations, the international union placed the local in trusteeship. Garcia, who has been president of Local 1877, based in San Jose, was assigned as trustee.

Since the trusteeship, Cesar Oliva, a janitor who was elected executive vice-president on the insurgent Multiracial Alliance slate, has gone to work on the local's staff as a field representative. Ayala explains that janitors have organized a steward system in the buildings, and area-wide committees which take up and refer members' greivances.

"I think the vote means that members support this program," Garcia says.

Local 1877 will have to develop new structures to ensure that rank-and-file members have the ability to make decisions over union policy. Having a single membership meeting is impossible, given the union's wide area of jurisdiction and its thousands of members. Garcia predicts that some form of chapter or council organization will be adopted, in addition to the union's elected executive board.

Until now, Local 399's 28,000 members have included 8,000 janitors, along with a 4,000 in the union's allied division, whose members work in racetracks, arenas and stadiums. When these groups join 1877, that union's membership will rise to about 20,500.

Local 399 will become a union for workers in the private healthcare industry. At present, the local represents workers at seven Kaiser hospitals and a number of clinics in the L.A. area. Those workers are already under the gun. Kaiser has announced plans for closing inpatient services at its Sunset Hospital, and moving them to St. Vincent's, a non-union hospital owned by Catholic Healthcare West. As many as 1800 Kaiser workers could lose their jobs in the process.

SEIU, which represents a large percentage of healthcare workers in northern California, only represents 6-8% in Los Angeles. According to Medina, "we're going to change all that." As SEIU's top official on the west coast, and with a long history as an organizer, he plans to make healthcare the union's priority target for new organizing drives. Medina was recruited by Cesar Chavez as a teenager in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley, and eventually became a vice-president of the United Farm Workers. After leaving the UFW, he headed San Diego's own janitors Local 2028, when it more than doubled in size.

"To organize the healthcare industry in Los Angeles, we need a purely healthcare union," he says. "Local 399 is it." Medina and other SEIU organizers plan to adapt Justice for Janitors' freewheeling campaign style to hospitals.

"In addition," Medina says, "over 2 million people receive their healthcare through union plans. That gives us a lot of economic leverage over HMOs and healthcare providers. Why should union dollars be spent on care by companies who deny workers their rights and who violate labor law?"

So as janitors prepare for their own confrontation in 2000, the city may also see a new wave of marches and street demonstrations by lowwage workers - this time from hospitals, challenging the anything-for-a-profit, managed care system.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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