How Century City Was Won

Against the Current, No. 28, September/October 1990

Rocío Sáenz

This talk was presented by Rocío Sáenz, an organizer in the Justice for Janitors campaign, at a Solidarity forum following the victory of the strike. The talk was in Spanish. The translation has been edited by ATC.

THIS ORGANIZING campaign started three years ago, out of the need to restructure the organizing that was happening at the time. The environment in Los Angeles wasn’t good.

It looked like we were losing most of the buildings that we already had. The owners together with the managers of the buildings were driving down the salaries for the janitors who were working there. Contractors were reducing salaries and benefits. For the workers, this meant the loss of salaries, the loss of benefits, and worst of all the loss of jobs.

We started with three basic steps. The first was reorganization of the base — to bring back the trust of the workers that we had lost, to organize new delegates in the buildings, whom we also trained. It wasn’t hurried this time.

The next step was to consolidate the reorganization. Starting in the middle of 1989—in some of the buildings we already had – we fought and won an assurance that the first new buildings these companies opened would use union contractors. The next thing we achieved was a general contract for the whole area of Los Angeles This meant forcing all the companies who were opening buildings to just sign one contract, or face the consequences. The unity of all the workers – and with much more force — was thereby assured.

These two steps took us into a third. We realized that it wasn’t enough to just go from building to building and from company toy. We needed to focus on one common target — one single company — that would bring all the workers into the union.

That’s why we chose ISS, International Service Systems, a multimillion dollar, multinational company which raised issues that we could highlight in our campaign. ISS shows two faces: one in other countries, where they have really good relations with workers — good union relations, nice treatment — and the other face in Los Angeles where there has been no respect for union workers.

We also needed to target an area to work on, and we chose Century City because that’s exactly the area where ISS has the most control.

The Strategy for Organizing

There were three elements involved in this part of the campaign. One was to thoroughly understand the corporate structure. We knew who the owners, the investors, and the residents were behind this corporation’s development projects. In this case we also knew about JMB Realty, who had a monopoly of building owners in this area.

First we have the owners of the buildings. On the highest level, they have the power of decision. Then we have the managers of the buildings, whose responsibility is to satisfy the needs of the owners of the buildings; they are the ones who contract the cleaning companies. At the bottom are the workers, marginalized by all these layers of control.

We had to deal with all of them, but first of all we had to deal with the owners. JMB got the message that we were going to wreck their plans for expansion. We also talked to the investors, in this case involving a pension fund. They put pressure on 1MB, telling them that if they didn’t stop their labor problems, investment was going to terminate.

Toward the end we were able to reach the residents (building tenants), who were the key players in this decision. Many times they asked us why we were picketing during the day when the workers were working at night We told them that it was because they were the ones responsible for what was happening at night–that they should be putting pressure on the building owners until things changed.

Very important in this campaign was the mobilization of the base. We had to have a group that would represent the workforce of this enterprise. We had organizers who came in from the outside; though they didn’t really know the area, they had experience that we knew would prove valuable during the campaign. But we also had organizers from the base, who would understand the language, knew the jobs, and were able to communicate with the workers.

This combination of “outside” and “inside” organizers made for great teamwork. Our abilities were all Balanced. This is one of the main points to grasp in understanding the success of our campaign.

There was also the fact that we didn’t use [National Labor Relations Board] elections, and I want to explain why. First, using these elections to win union recognition doesn’t always translate into a strong union–a union built from the base. This is very important.

Moreover, keep in mind that we’re talking about a contractor’s company [with a long history of ignoring the election system and the type of organizing surrounding it A previous union election vote was won, but the owner simply dumped the contractor for a nonunion one –ed.]

The isolation, the night work and the separation made it very difficult for the janitors to be visible and get support in this town. In our campaign we had to work upside down to bring to light this type of work so that people would see that these were human beings, with the same needs as the lawyers who were also working in these buildings.

The reaction of the owners was what we expected: They started threatening and firing people, as we knew they would. But instead of breaking the organization, these tactics helped create a stronger and more powerful union.

We started with six strikes in Century City, all at different times. But the company, predictably enough, did not respond to our demands. They didn’t want to recognize the union. The workers were ready to fight We were creating a crisis in Century City. And the levels of participation were increasing.

We realized that when we had our union assemblies at ten o’clock at night — when the janitors eat their lunch — nobody from security would come and bother us. But when we had these same type of meetings during the day, the problems were incredible. Patrol cars would come, and the security people would be running everywhere. However, we always insisted that we were going to stay there until the problem was solved.

When the strike started, there were pickets every day. We had marches — mobile pickets — which meant that we were going from building to building in Century City, weaving throughout all the buildings there. We chanted, saying what we wanted and insisting that we weren’t going to stop until we had what we wanted.

We would visit the bars during happy hours. More than forty workers would come and they would ask only for one soda each. We would show that we had the right to be there as much as anybody else did. We tried to open accounts when the banks opened.

Also, we would affect their traffic. And I want to thank some of the people who are here, whose cars sometimes would come to surprising stops – develop curious problems— at eight o’clock in the morning. This affected the Century tenants. They knew that we were there and that we weren’t going to move out.

We would try to put up a barrier— a fence. The first time they took it away from us. The second time that we put it up, we allowed the police to come and take it apart by themselves. We wanted to create the sense that they were everywhere. And so, barriers began to appear everywhere – in the buildings, in the elevators, and on the stairs.

We also sent trash. This was a way of telling them that the only thing that they were giving us as an answer was trash. So that’s what we were going to give back as our response: trash.

Another very important part of this campaign was the community. They would participate in marches, independent delegations. They would go and talk to JMB, put pressure on the politicians and then also et us money by soliciting contributions. They, along with us, were victims of the June 15 repression Isee accompanying account by Mike Davis of the Los Angeles police riot –ed.]

I want to assure you that by this time the police were already working definitely as a protector of the interests that we were fighting against And this (police riot) was definitely a show of their frustration, because we were affecting the whole of Century City.

The reaction of the police demonstrated, first of all, that they were willing to repress any worker making $4.25 an hour And so it wasn’t just the janitors that we were talking about. It was the workers of all of Los Angeles. The message was clear: this is what’s going to happen to you if you want to protest.

In the middle of all this, the solidarity of everybody started showing itself, The unions, community and student organizations, and their leaders were present there with us, fighting for their own rights as well as ours.

I’ve heard someone say that the process of solidarity culminated in the 29th of June (victory) march. We were more than fifty groups, united to march. Of course by that time we had already achieved recognition from the company. So it was a march of victory, but also a march to show them that we were going to keep using our own rights – and that what they did was repudiated everywhere by everybody.

That’s why I want to thank all of you for your presence in this campaign. It demonstrates how well you understand what one of our companeros was trying to get across in saying that if you’ve done it against one of us then you’ve done it against everybody.

September-October 1990, ATC 28

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