David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Immigrant Workers Fight to Run Local 399
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES (9/16/95) - Last week the international office of the Service Employees International Union finally placed Los Angeles' janitors' union, Local 399, in trusteeship. Although this was not unexpected, in the eyes of many union activists it is nevertheless a tragic step in a long series of confrontations over the leadership of one of the city's most progressive unions.

The janitors' union is no stranger to chanting demonstrations, hunger strikes, or other in-your-face tactics. It's known for them, using them successfully to organize over four thousand workers in the last five years. But since the election of new union leaders last June 8, these tactics have been used by members struggling over the rights they have inside their union, especially the right to lead it.

In the June election, a rank-and-file group within the local, the Multiracial Alliance, ran a slate of candidates for the union's executive board. Alliance candidates won every position except one - union president. Local 399's president for almost two decades, Jim Zellers, ran unopposed, but the slate of candidates which he supported was defeated.

Afterwards, the new executive board tried to fire the union's lawyers, and staff members who they claimed were not representing members adequately. Zellers blocked the board's action. Since then, by everyone's admission, the internal workings of the union have broken down.

On August 3rd, a group of twelve workers began a hunger strike in front of the union's offices in downtown LA. For eighteen days they lived in tents pitched on a narrow strip of dirt between the walls of the union hall and the sidewalk. Banners calling for union democracy were draped among the trees next to the street, and crowds of workers supporting both Zellers and the hunger strikers swirled around the union hall.

While the confrontation escalated, a series of unfruitful negotiations were held in Los Angeles and Denver, to try to agree on the powers of the new executive board. Monitors were appointed and removed by the international, and each side charged the other with an unwillingness to compromise. Finally the international held hearings to determine whether to remove the union's officers, and appoint a trustee to run the local. The hunger strikers ended their strike, but the international nevertheless decided to invoke the trusteeship.

On the surface, the differences between the two sides concern the division of powers between the president and other officers, especially the power to fire current staff members. "The constitution and bylaws are relatively clear on the subject," Zellers asserts. "It gives me, the president, the power to administer the union, to hire and fire, and it gives the executive board the authority to chart a course for the union, in consultation with the other officers."

Zellers' supporters point out that the some of the staff the Alliance wants to replace is itself represented by a union contract, which prohibits firing without cause. Other union activists in the city criticize the new board for immediately provoking a confrontation on the issue of staff replacement after the election, rather than first assuming office, elaborating their program for changes in the union, and trying to hold the staff accountable to it.

Cesar Oliva, a janitor who was elected executive vice-president, doesn't see it that way. "Having won the majority of the executive board," he says, "we believe we have the right to make the decisions for creating a better union." Yolanda Rios, a Kaiser hospital cashier for 17 years, who was elected secretary-treasurer, calls the right to determine who performs the critical functions of the union, including negotiating contracts, defending workers' grievances, and administering the local's business "the crux of this whole battle."

To Rios, the power to determine who negotiates and enforces the locals' contracts determines how good those agreements are. Employers "used to give some concessions, in terms of small percentage increases and better benefits packages. But not any more, especially in the service sector. And the members are just fed up." For better contracts, she says, "democracy is the key - member participation, input and decision-making." Many Kaiser workers were unhappy with the last contract negotiated by the local, after a one-day strike, and have complained that their grievances get bottled up in a complicated legal process for months, rather than being resolved by increasing the strength of the union on the hospital floor.

But while thousands of Local 399 members are hospital workers, the big drive to form the multiracial alliance grew first among the immigrant janitors who have streamed into the union in the last five years.

Local 399 has been one of the labor movement's success stories in the recent past, but 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 this was a clever move in the short term, it 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, and contributed new thinking to them as well. In a watershed event which turned the tide for the union, the LA Police Department cornered a janitors' march among the skyscrapers of Century City which they cleaned every night, and beat the hell out of the participants. That 1989 police riot, eventually denounced even by Mayor Bradley, won the union the support it needed to regain its contracts, which now cover the bulk 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 would the union try to hold labor board elections, a process which many unions feel has become totally dominated by employers. Instead, it 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 those who have the power - the building owners themselves. Labor activists throughout LA have watched in admiration as the union made life hell for those owners who exploited immigrant labor at minimum wages.

These 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. It's hard to imagine these tactics appealing to software designers or other more highly-paid occupations with a more native-born and anglo workforce. But 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 do 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, the head of the janitors' union in San Diego, SEIU Local 102, and past vice-president of the United Farm Workers, puts it that, "when you come from a country where they shoot you for being a unionist or a striker, then 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."

Local 399's members now include thousands of these workers - a majority of the workforce in the building service industry. Much of the leadership of the Multiracial Alliance came from these campaigns. Cesar Oliva gives credit to their achievements. "I know what I owe to Justice for Janitors," he says. "I began in the movement when the campaign started in 1986. With many other workers, we made it possible to win the benefits we now have. But now they're being put in danger ."

The militant traditions of immigrant workers served the union well as a source of anger and energy directed against employers. But they also carried with them the expectation that workers would have a significant amount of control over their union once they were members of it. Many janitors felt these expectations were unfulfilled. "Organizers treated us as cannon fodder," Oliva charges, "pushing us forward, but not permitting us to make decisions over the process."

That has become the point at issue in Local 399. It makes the local's problem relevant to other unions, especially those in California and the southwest who also see immigrant workers as the base for a new upsurge in power and militance. Unions find that when these workers join, especially as a result of hard-fought battles which bring out their combativeness and raise their expectations, these new members want a say in how their union is run. They want control over contract negotiations and grievance handling. That can threaten the delicate balance of power inside any union, and the jobs of union staff.

The conflict in Local 399 has unfolded at a time when progressive voices in the labor movement have been trying to force national leaders to recognize and deal with a very unpleasant reality - the declining percentage of union members among workers generally in the U.S. The debate over organizing the unorganized has grown so hot that it is now the major point of conflict between the two candidates vying for leadership of the AFL-CIO itself. Not coincidentally, both candidates come from the union to which Local 399 belongs - John Sweeney is president of the Service Employees International Union, and Tom Donahue is the new president of the AFL-CIO. The federation convention in October will decide which man will lead it into the next century.

At different times, each headed SEIU's big New York City local. Both say organizing is the main priority for unions today, although they disagree over where to find the money and resources for new campaigns. But neither one has come to grips with the problem which Local 399 represents - the empowerment of newly-organized members within their unions, especially the Latinos, African-Americans, and other minority workers who are the most pro-union section of the workforce today.

Both Sweeney and Donahue propose to hire more staff, and spend more money, assuming that an increase in resources alone will solve the problem. But the problem of organizing is more than just increasing the numbers of new members and new contracts. Strong unions also need workers who have developed as leaders, even while they are still organizing their way into the union. These workers need the ability to make decisions over the tactics and strategy they use, instead of being mobilized by to implement decisions made by union staff, even when that staff is well-intentioned and militant.

Historically, organizing on the scale labor needs (as Sweeney says, a million workers a year), has always been a product of a broad social movement. It depended, not just on militant tactics and big staffs, but on the democratic participation and empowerment of thousands of ordinary people, responding as much to the social vision labor represented as the need for a contract. As the late legendary west coast longshore leader Harry Bridges said, when your union is in trouble, go to the rank-and-file.

The international union chose Mike Garcia, president of the janitors union in Silicon Valley, as 399's trustee. Garcia started as an insurgent in his own local, was a successful organizer, and is an outspoken voice for Latino trade unionists. But many observers fear the trusteeship will not resolve the problems in Local 399, and may even jeopardize the local's organizing program.

Other unions may also pay a price, if these problems endanger the plans for new massive organizing drives in what has become the largest manufacturing district by far in the United States. Since LA has the largest population of Mexican people of any city outside of Mexico City itself, these organizing campaigns will rely on the militance and drive of Latino workers - the same workforce demanding a share in the leadership of Local 399.

For Latino workers, unions have become an indispensable tool for winning political power in California. That is a survival question in the era of Proposition 187, and one which places them squarely in the mainstream of the U.S. labor tradition for immigrant workers. But they are also coming into unions whose structure and power are held by others, finding they have to win power inside their unions before they can use the union structure to fight for broader goals. If they feel excluded from the ability to run their unions, that may make them cynical or reluctant to join them as well.

Most labor activists in Los Angeles and beyond would call that outcome a tragedy.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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