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Street vs. Suite 

Why L.A.’s janitors will win their strike

Wednesday, Apr 5 2000
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Why L.A.‘s janitors will win their strike

At first glance, the struggle between L.A.’s janitors, who embarked on a countywide strike this week, and L.A.‘s highrise owners may seem ludicrously one-sided. The men who own the glass-and-steel towers along the Figueroa corridor, in Century City, at the Warner Center etc. (or who own the investment trusts that own those buildings) loom over the local political landscape much as their properties do the physical landscape. Richard Ziman, who as CEO of Arden Realty owns more class-A office properties than anyone else in town, has played host to President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Governor Davis and other pols equally appreciative of his megabucks fund-raising. Rob Maguire has had the money and the moxie to overcome all manner of opposition in his quest to build Playa Vista.

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The very idea that Ziman, Maguire and their counterparts may have to meet the demands of Blanca Buendia -- who has mopped the floors and vacuumed the carpets at the Gas Company’s downtown headquarters since she arrived here nine years ago from El Salvador, and who gets $7.80 an hour for her efforts -- sounds too preposterous even to contemplate. But humor me a moment. Because when this strike is done, I think Buendia and her co-workers will have prevailed. And changed Los Angeles in the process.

It‘s not that Buendia and her husband, Mauricio, who also works at the Gas Company at the $7.80 hourly rate, have set aside the money to tide them through a strike. Once they pay the rent on their Westlake-area apartment and for the sitter who watches their 4- and 2-year-olds, there’s not much left for a rainy-day fund. Despite that -- and despite the fact that she‘s eight months pregnant, with her health insurance suspended for the duration of the strike -- Blanca Buendia was one of the roughly 50 janitors who formed a picket line in front of the Gas Company late Monday afternoon.

The Gas Company was the first building that Buendia’s union had targeted for their strike; by the end of Monday night, the janitors had struck virtually every downtown highrise. On Tuesday night, they walked on the Westside; by week‘s end, the majority of L.A.’s premier office properties, from Long Beach to Pasadena, will have lost their regular cleaning forces. Currently paid between $6.80 and $7.80 an hour, the janitors are asking for an hourly raise of $1 in each of the proposed new contract‘s three years.

As a percentage of their current income, that’s a big jump. Then again, their current income is the lowest for a janitorial work force in any city outside the anti-union South. But no other city experienced the huge influx of destitute immigrants that swept over L.A. in the mid-‘80s, and no other city had a building-maintenance industry that fired almost all its existing workforce (chiefly unionized African-Americans) to hire immigrants, many of them undocumented, for less than half of what management had been paying their predecessors.

“The last contract the union negotiated before the bottom fell out was in ’82 or ‘83,” recalls Jono Schaffer, at that time an organizer of the Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign, and who now heads up the AFL-CIO‘s unionization campaign at LAX. “Almost immediately after the ink was dry on the signatures, we had to go into renegotiations, dropping the wages just to keep our members in the building. We bottomed out in ’86, when we had just 1,500 members countywide.” The vast majority of L.A.‘s new janitors worked non-union at minimum wage -- then $3.35 an hour, just 44 percent of the $7.32 the union had negotiated a few years before.

No other American city had experienced such wholesale substitution of workforces and simultaneous shift to non-union contractors. No other city saw wage rates plummet. In San Francisco, janitors make between $12 and $14 an hour today; in New York, between $15 and $17.

Today, Buendia’s union -- SEIU local 1877, a statewide janitor‘s union with 8,500 members in L.A. County -- is still composed almost entirely of Latino immigrants. Local 1877 president Mike Garcia estimates the membership at between 98 and 99 percent immigrant, 55 percent of it female. Monday’s strike-authorization rally -- an angry and exuberant gathering of 3,000 members, many of them with infants and toddlers in tow -- was conducted primarily in Spanish. (The union provided a translator for non-Spanish-speaking members; but when last I looked, she was translating for no more than half-a-dozen members.)

Building the janitors‘ local back up to 8,500 members has taken a grueling 14 years. “In a sense, the local began on the Olympic Boulevard bus from Century City to Pico Union -- the 2:30 a.m. bus,” recalls Schaffer. “It was the janitors’ private bus: There sure wasn‘t anyone else on it, and it was the one place where they could talk freely about their jobs.”

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