Organizing an Industry

Janitors across the country are joining together to show corporate contractors just how much clout they have.

Beginning in Los Angeles, where hundreds responsible for cleaning about 70 percent of L.A.'s offices walked, and continuing in New York, San Diego, Chicago and a host of other cities, more than 100,000 workers are getting ready to show their muscle.

The walkouts and protests are part of a national negotiating strategy by the Service Employees International Union that is winning better contracts for workers and drawing new members to the union.

The story begins almost 15 years ago, when the union started a program called "Justice for Janitors," which focused organizing efforts at the so-called fringes of the work force. Under the leadership of John Sweeney, now president of the AFL-CIO, the union dumped large amounts of money into organizing and hit the streets with protests to draw attention to the janitors' low wages and poor working conditions. That organizing helped grow the union, boosting its membership to about 1.3 million today and making it one of the leading voices for immigrant workers in the country.

"Their organizing tends to be among marginalized workers," Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., told the Associated Press. "They also tend to emphasize justice, dignity and respect. Instead of saying, 'We're going to get you tremendous wage increases,' they say, 'We're going to get you bargaining agreements that will give you your fair share of economic prosperity."

That organizing created the kind of momentum needed for the union to take its next step: Lining up the expiration dates of its contracts to expire within months of each other, allowing the union to effectively negotiate a national contract.

Stephen Lerner, head of the union's Building Services Division, told the Associated Press in April that the strategy was meant to negate the power the larger contractors had gained in recent years.

"There's been a massive consolidation of the real estate industry in terms of who owns buildings and who cleans buildings," he said. "Increasingly, the people we negotiate with operate regionally and nationally. So it's just common sense that if the people we're opposing have a national strategy, we have a national strategy."

According to the SEIU Website, janitorial wages have stagnated for about 20 years. In L.A., for instance, janitors are paid between $6.80 and $7.80 an hour -- or about $15,000 a year. And these kinds of wages are not unusual, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Wages nationally run from about $14,000 to $17,000 a year.

The reasons for the wage stagnation, according to the Monitor, range from Reagan-era anti-union measures and a series of recessions to competition from non-union, illegal immigrants and the "rise of highly fluctuating, short-term jobs" that have given contracting firms the kind of leverage that allows them to dictate the terms of employment. And most of the contracts are now handled by firms far-removed from where the work is done and the workers actually live. That allows some business owners to escape responsibility, the SEIU says.

"What we're looking for is industrial power," Mike Garcia, president of Local 1877 in California, told David Bacon in Z Magazine in 1997. "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. They change cleaning contractors like socks. So the only way to really change conditions, and to protect our members, is to have the same set of wages and conditions for everyone."

So workers in Los Angeles walked. And others in New York, Chicago and elsewhere have been staging demonstrations and other actions.

* In L.A., before janitors approved a new contract April 21 [see "Dispatches," page 10], janitors picketed their workplaces at night to prevent scabs from taking over their jobs and marched during the day. Janitors in San Diego and the San Francisco Bay area -- whose contract expires at the end of May -- walked in sympathy.

* In New York, about 10,000 residential building workers -- doormen, porters and maintenance workers -- marched up Park Avenue to promote their demands for contract talks with the owners of 3,000 buildings.

* In suburban Chicago, 100 janitors took part in a two-day fast to draw attention to their struggle to gain health insurance benefits.

"Workers in our society should not have to decide whether they should eat or see a doctor," Local 1 President Doug Hart said.

Workers in Seattle, Denver, Cleveland, Hartford, Conn., and elsewhere are participating in the fight, as well, looking to make their lives a little better -- and possibly helping to reshape the labor movement in the process.

As Gary Chaison told the Monitor, this "fight represents a reshaping of the traditional union mission," putting the emphasis on economic justice and equality and not just on the well-being of union members. "If labor is going to revitalize itself, it is going to have to find ways to appeal to workers on the fringes as well as those in higher-end jobs."

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in New Jersey. He can be reached via e-mail at

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