David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Janitors Take the First Step Towards an Industry-Wide Strike
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES (4/9/00) - This year is the janitors' millenium -- the year they plan to get their wages back.

Their battle started two weeks ago in Los Angeles, when janitors took a strike vote on April 4. That night, they walked out of the gleaming glass office towers from downtown to Century City. Within a week, the strike had spread south to the Mexican border, as janitors struck in San Diego.

Silicon Valley workers are next - their contract expires at the end of April. Meanwhile, a thousand Chicago janitors announced they were beginning a hunger strike, and ten thousand marched through the streets of New York City.

The pressure is building, and if contractors in Los Angeles don't settle soon, a wave of janitorial strikes could sweep across the country, involving tens of thousands of workers. If they do settle in LA, the pattern they set will lift wages from coast to coast.

Five years ago, Service Employees locals from San Diego to Seattle, and inland to Denver and beyond, began lining up their contracts, demanding agreements that expire this spring. In Oakland and Silicon Valley, workers even struck to get the year 2000 expiration date.

Big building service companies, who clean office buildings around the country, fought it of course. They knew what the union had in mind. And starting this year in Los Angeles, their fears were realized.

The eighteen contractors who are signatory to the Los Angeles master agreement were ready as well. Confrontations escalated in the parking garages below the skyscrapers, as police attempted to escort strikebreakers through the picket lines.

In many cases, big mobilizations of janitors backed the police off, and kept the scabs out. When contractors tried to get an injunction to stop the picketing, Judge Dzintra Janavs turned them down, Meanwhile, Teamster UPS drivers and garbage collectors refused to go through to make pickups.

As the week wore on, marches of thousands of janitors and supporters swept west to Century City, headed by Jesse Jackson and Assembly Speaker (and soon to be declared mayoral candidate) Antonio Villaraigosa, demanding that the contractors negotiate.

Century City has become the target of the LA strike for good reason.

In the mid-1980s, building service contractors throughout the city dumped their union workforce of primarily African-American janitors, and went non-union. Riding a wave of immigration provoked by wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and economic crisis in Mexico, the contractors assembled a new workforce. Immigrants, they assumed, had low expectations and could be easily intimidated into accepting the minimum wage of $3.85/hour, instead of the old $7 union scale.

They miscalculated badly.

Immigrant janitors responded to the appeals of union organizers, who developed a new strategy they called Justice for Janitors. In a defining moment in 1989, thousands of immigrant workers marching through the towers of Century City were attacked by the Los Angeles police. Dozens were badly beaten. Uproar over police violence rocked the city, and produced sufficient pressure to force the biggest contractors to sign union agreements.

Once again, SEIU represented some 8500 LA janitors, who clean 70% of the county's office buildings. After a rough struggle over leadership of the LA union, janitors from Los Angeles to Silicon Valley to Oakland to Sacramento were consolidated into one union - Local 1877.

But the wage scale of a decade earlier had been lost.

What happened in Los Angeles was not unique. Throughout the west, building service companies broke wage scales in areas where the union had been strong, or kept wages low by keeping the union out. Only the largest cities, like San Francisco and New York, kept buildings under contract and wages intact.

To reverse the tide, organizers began using civil disobedience, corporate campaigns and broad community support coalitions to reorganize the industry. The bedrock principle of Justice for Janitors was to keep the pressure on the building owners, holding them responsible for the conditions of those who clean their buildings.

In Silicon Valley and Sacramento, Local 1877 first trained its sights on Apple Computer, and then Hewlett-Packard. After long, grueling campaigns, including a hundred-mile march through torrential rainstorms to company headquarters in Palo Alto, the union finally regained contracts covering a big majority of the industry. In other cities, janitors used the same tactic - focus on the building owners, the ones with the money and economic control.

The Silicon Valley wage demand is even higher than in Los Angeles. Reflecting one of the nation's highest costs of living, Santa Clara County last year adopted an ordinance calling $12.50/hour the minimum liveable wage for a working family in the valley. Janitors currently earn $8/hour. With an acute housing shortage in the South Bay, that income level that has some workers living in garages.

Some building service companies have grown to become multi-national corporations themselves, especially industry leaders American Building Maintenance and OneSource. OneSource was the principle target in Century City, in the days when the company's name was ISS, then a division of a Danish corporation. Since then it was bought out by British financier Michael Ashcroft, who runs it as part of his Carlisle Holdings Ltd., based in tax-free Belize. The company has contracts in 38 states, and last year had revenues over $800 million.

But despite the growth of contractors, the building owners - large real estate combines or huge corporations - have all the power and economic leverage. The Building Owners and Managers Association says it is not involved in the LA strike, and plays no role in setting janitors' salaries. But the owners play contractors against each other, pushing cleaning rates lower, while the contractors compete by cutting wages to the bottom.

In Century City, the rental rate for office space in the towers averages $2 per square foot. An LA janitor normally cleans 17,000 square feet of office space a night, including four bathrooms. Space that rents for over $30,000 a month is cleaned by a worker earning $6.80/hour, or $1156 for the same period of time.

It's no wonder that the union demand in Los Angeles, which will reverberate through the rest of the country as more contracts expire, is a dollar an hour raise for each of the next three years. In Los Angeles, that would bring the top scale, now $7.90/hour, close to what the old union rate would be today -- $12 - taking inflation into account. That's still roughly the union rate in those cities where the union kept control of the industry.

Contractors are offering much less - 50, 40 and 40 for downtown janitors, and 0, 40 and 40 for outlying areas. Their proposal would widen the differential between janitors in the same city. But the contractors won't even negotiate, until the workers "come to their senses," according to Dick Davis, negotiator for the 18 contractors who have signed Local 1877's LA agreement.

Not only is that unlikely. The strike is set to spread north and east very soon.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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