By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Blanca Buendia and her coworkers still can take it to the streets like nobody else in town, but they also bring six distinct assets to this battle, which I believe will enable them to prevail over the building owners and maintenance companies. These are, first, the strength of their own local, which is one of the most militant and strategically savvy on the L.A. scene; second, their international, which is probably the most innovative and strategically savvy of U.S. unions; third, the L.A. labor movement, which is certainly the best coordinated and most strategically savvy of labor councils in the U.S.; fourth, the support of political and clerical leaders; fifth, the booming state of the economy (for everyone but them). Finally, they so firmly hold the moral high ground that winning public support should be one of their easier tasks.
Under the leadership of Mike Garcia, Local 1877 has emerged as one of the most active and dynamic in the nation -- and one of the most unlikely political players on the L.A. scene. In the wake of the janitors‘ victory in Century City, the new immigrants began to flood into one of SEIU’s more established -- and by SEIU standards, more sedentary -- locals. A clash of strategies, visions and cultures soon developed; at the janitors‘ behest, the international union intervened and established a distinct janitorial union.
The members of Local 1877 don’t own homes, and for the most part don‘t own cars. The one thing they do own is 1877. Members commit more time to their union than in any other I know of. (Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees runs a close second.) Anyone who’s seen labor demonstrations in L.A. knows that 1877 will turn out the most members. And Local 1877 is key to the conversion of the County Fed from a somnolent central labor council to the most potent force in L.A. politics. “We supported Miguel [Contreras, the leader of the County Fed since early ‘96] from Day One,” says Garcia. “We worked with Miguel and Fabian [Nunez, the Fed’s political director], and with them, we coordinated the Latino political mobilization.”
That mobilization has been so well coordinated that the Fed has won 16 of 17 targeted races since Contreras took the helm. “Our operation focuses on members and on Latino new-immigrant voters,” says Contreras, “and for this, the janitors are critical. Their members are willing to work their shift until 4 a.m., then show up for a precinct walk at 7 a.m.”
“In the election of November ‘98,” says Garcia, “we turned out for 1,500 shifts.” A “shift” can mean either walking a precinct or working a phone bank for an afternoon or evening. “In the elections this March, we were somewhat distracted by the impending strike,” Garcia says, almost apologetically. “We managed only 200 shifts -- but that still made us the most active local union in L.A. County.”
Now the political community is weighing in on behalf of the janitors. As of Monday, 48 local elected officials from across the county had signed a statement of support for the janitors. State Senator Richard Alarcon and Assembly Members Gloria Romero and Scott Wildman showed up for the final pre-strike bargaining session that 1877 had with the representatives of management, to make crystal clear just how important the janitors’ cause was to them. Last week, the L.A. City Council voted 13 to 0 to support the janitors. This Monday, the janitors‘ strike rally was addressed by Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (who said, “Your demands are basic demands -- five days of sick leave for the people who work in the dirtiest jobs in town”) and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (who said, “I hope there’s not a building owner in Los Angeles who plans to expand his profits on the backs of the people who clean his toilets”). On Tuesday, Yaroslavsky successfully prodded the county Board of Supervisors to back the janitors, too.
But the janitors would never have been able to call in these political debts had the County Fed not established the political program in which they‘ve played so crucial a role. This year ---- with contracts expiring for more than 250,000 workers who belong to the member unions of the Fed -- Contreras’ extraordinary labor council has initiated a bargaining-support campaign every bit as groundbreaking as its electoral efforts. The Fed is helping the 20 unions whose contracts are up to develop their message and their strategic plans. For striking janitors, it has established a food bank that, Contreras pledges, will provide a weekly shopping bag of food to every member for the duration of the strike. And it has encouraged unions to come to the active assistance of the locals that do decide to strike.
On Tuesday morning, the janitors saw the first concrete expression of that assistance. Teamsters Local 396, which represents the trash haulers and UPS drivers throughout much of L.A., refused to make parcel deliveries or pick up the trash at any building the janitors had struck. “UPS put their supervisors on their vehicles,” said Danny Bruno, who was elected leader of the Teamsters‘ local just this January, “but as the strike spreads, they’re going to run out of supervisors.