A Victory with Meaning

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

The Editors

WHEN 120 JANITORS in Los Angeles ended their two-month-old strike and ratified their first union contract on July 26, it might not have seemed like the stuff of history. Yet this tiny strike against the contracting firm of International Service Systems (ISS) threw the city of Los Angeles into political turmoil; brought nearly 2,000 building service workers under Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 399’s master contract; and, as one Los Angeles journalist suggested, rewrote the book on how to conduct an organizing drive among workers who have all the odds against them.

This organizing drive of largely undocumented workers succeeded because it threw out the window conventional wisdom as to why struggles like this are not supposed to be winnable. It consciously bypassed the traditional National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) procedures and at no time looked to a ballot as the primary way to win union recognition. Moreover, Justice for Janitors worked from the start knowing that its workers could not win by virtue of their economic power alone. It knew therefore that it would have to find other ways to make the employers pay.

In part, it accomplished this in the way victorious unions historically have always done, but that U.S. unions in recent years have rarely done. Through a series of daring, militant actions, Justice for Janitors hit the employer with force and flair when he least expected it: by staging a series of disruptive mass marches through buildings, organizing quickie sitdowns in fancy offices, and ultimately by standing up en masse to rioting cops at the border of Century City and Beverly Hills.

The campaign also politicized the struggle and appealed beyond the narrow limits of the janitorial services business. It spent hours and days patiently explaining to other trade unionists and the community why this struggle of poor and illegal trabajadores against arrogant, unconcerned office developers was exemplary of working-class struggle in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future. It came literally face to face with the middle-class visitors to the posh shopping malls and restaurants of Century City. Red-shirted Latino janitors “invaded” the trendy bars at “happy hour.” Bar managers were apparently shocked to learn, upon calling the police, that the presence of poor immigrants wasn’t illegal.

Meanwhile, Justice for Janitors challenged the media to say whether they were content to sit back and watch as the city’s emergent financial, sweatshop, and land developing bourgeoisie brought the class polarization and human degradation of Victorian London to twenty-first century Los Angeles.

Indeed, so effectively did the organizing drive present its case to and win the support of the Los Angeles labor movement, the Latino community, and the public at large that a frustrated and isolated Los Angeles police force could not, in the end, maintain its cool. On June 15, cops sought to prevent 500 strikers and supporters from re-entering a Century City plaza where only a few days before they had entirely outfoxed, outflanked, and totally embarrassed the blue-coated keepers of the peace. Unprovoked and unannounced, the police simply waded into the crowd of demonstrators–billy-clubs swinginlg–and arrested forty-five demonstrators while seriously injuring thirty more. This climactic confrontation, presented in sickening detali by local TV, turned out to be a critical event in turning the tide in favor of the strikers, who ultimately won a contract in which every one of their demands was pretty much granted.

The Justice for Janitors victory in Los Angeles has a significance far beyond what it achieved in that unique “Global City.” Above all, it put to the test a number of highly touted reasons why the decline of organized labor in the United States is a foregone conclusion in this era of the total international marketplace.

At the most obvious level, it was a victory at a time when defeats are thought to be the norm and organizing the unorganized a hopelessly difficult task. A scant 12% of the private civilian labor force belonged to unions in 1989, compared to almost 36% in the 1950s and 25% during the 1970s. A victory of this size cannot tip the statistical balance, of course, but it is part of the SEIU’s nation-wide Justice for Janitors campaign and can provide both inspiration and in1portant lessons for other cities.

It was also a victory in an area that is supposed to be next to impossible to organize–contract services. Sub-contracting is one of the economy’s fastest growing types of work, used by more and more employers as a means of cutting those labor costs associated with a stable unionized work force: costly health benefits, pensions, and other non-wage items. Not coincidentally, it also removes more aspects of work from the “rigidities” of union work rules.

Virtually every industry now uses some form of subcontracting–from parts production to food, computer, maintenance, and building services. For manufacturing industries from auto to petrochemicals, subcontracting is part of the grander notion of work for “flexibility” now sweeping through the entire capitalist world.

The social truth behind this management buzzword for the 1990s is one of a multitiered work force in which poverty grows in relation to the distance from the original employer’s “core” workers. For a multinational real-estate operator like JMB, which owns most of the space in Century City where the strike occurred, subcontracting is simply a way to avoid responsibility for those who clean its glittering neo-modern skyscrapers.

The Justice for Janitors campaign realized that it would have to focus as much on the owner, JMB, as on the direct employer ISS. JMB specializes in trendy properties and owns such symbols of urban “revival” as Chicago’s Water Tower Place, Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and Toronto’s Eaton Centre. In 1987-88 alone, JMB spent about $3.4 billion buying up properties. It doesn’t want to be bothered with a lot of pension and insurance obligations. So it contracts with the Danish-owned ISS for its janitorial staff.

Despite the myth that contract workers can’t be organized, in other countries workers like those in the Justice for Janitors campaign already belong to unions. In Brazil, for example, ISS is 100% union. This is not because Brazil’s employers and their military backers are pushovers. It is because Brazilian labor is aggressive, democmtic, and class conscious.

Immigrants and the Global Economy

Almost every dimension of the Justice for Janitors victory displays the symbols of the new international economic order. Most of the ISS strikers in Los Angeles and those who will benefit from their victmy are recent immigrants from Central America and Mexico. It’s often been said that this sort of worker just can’t be organized, especially in the context of the ongoing globalization of the economy. But they represent to an important degree the wave of the future for U.S. labor.

Latinos were the fastest growing sector of the civilian labor force during the 1980s and now compose about 12% of the civilian labor force in the United States. It is estimated that about a quarter of a million immigrants enter the country every year–a figure that is almost certainly way too low–mostly from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. The majority of these workers flow into the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. We have seen many of these workers organize as agricultural, cannery, garment, hotel and restaurant workers. Now they have established a beachhead in the nation’s four-million-worker building service contract labor force.

The Justice for Janitors Los Angeles campaign represents the clash of multinational capital with international labor on the site of tl1e “Global City,” where 60% of the office space is rented by Japanese businesses. Free Trade Agreements (FTA) first with Canada and soon with Mexico may bring not only George Bush’s dream of deregulated markets from “the Port of Anchorage to tl1e Tierra del Fuego,” but also tighter links between the working classes of the nations involved–through the intermingling of labor migrations and the linkage of common employers and production processes.

Fleeing the wars and poverty that “gringo” imperialism has helped to inflict on much of Latin America and the Caribbean, many of the workers of the Justice for Janitors campaign often face the threat of deportation and always face the reality of discrimination.

Immigrant workers to the United States have historically almost always had to face such disabilities. But they have also often brought with them from the “old country” traditions of labor militancy and political radicalism that served them well in their new environment. The same goes for those at the center of the janitors strike in Los Angeles, many of whom bring with them labor and political traditions from the social struggles in their Central American homelands.

Finally, as we have emphasized–and as explained further in our coverage in this issue–the strategy of the Los Angeles Justice for Janitors campaign was hardly that of the conventional organizing drive. The construction of broad labor solidarity, the militant mass confrontations, and the broad participation of the community appear to be particularly innovative only because they remain so much the exception in American labor struggles. What is important is that the organizers knew from the beginning that a conventional organizing drive would ;not work in this situation. The willingness not to let the strategy be stopped or stalled even by police lines was the final critical element in the victory.

Let’s hope that this approach wili prove contagious.

September-October 1990, ATC 28

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