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
”This is the first time I know of that the Teamsters have backed up non-Teamsters locally,“ Bruno told me. ”Wherever there‘s a picket line, our members will not cross.“
Bruno’s pledge is echoed by janitors locals across the country. Since Steven Lerner and a rag-tag crew of organizers initiated the Justice for Janitors campaign in the mid-‘80s, the number of janitors in the SEIU has grown to 200,000 across the nation. Lerner holds a black belt in street confrontation -- his masterpiece was a sit-down that tied up one of the bridges across the Potomac during the decade-long battle that led to the unionization of Washington’s janitors -- but he‘s also one canny strategist. The SEIU has timed its janitorial contracts so that most of them expire this year, within a few months, beginning in L.A. Locals from around the country have sent members to sit in on negotiations here --part of a campaign by the international to invest the janitors of Chicago, say, in the struggle of the janitors of L.A.
If SEIU has a national strategy, it’s because building management -- and building ownership -- are national industries. Companies such as American Building Management (ABM) and One-Source employ tens of thousands of janitors across the U.S.; they‘re also the leading contractors here in L.A. Real estate magnates like Chicago’s Sam Zell own highrises all across the U.S. By coordinating the expiration dates of their contracts, the janitors can plausibly threaten to wage a nationwide strike. More immediately, they can stage sympathy shut-downs with 1877. ”Starting this Thursday,“ says 1877‘s Garcia, ”our members will go to other cities. There are 15,000 members of the New York janitors local who work for ABM -- 1,500 work at the World Trade Center alone. If one of our members shows up outside with a sign -- ’Local 1877 On Strike Against ABM‘ -- none of those 1,500 will cross the line.“ In fact, SEIU has planned these kinds of walk-outs all across the country.
Finally, it defies all credulity for management to argue that it can’t afford the raises. Occupancy rates in L.A. have been rising steadily for half a decade. Rental rates in class-A office buildings across L.A. County have increased from an average of $1.51 per square foot in 1995 to $1.79 today -- an 18.5 percent increase in the last four years. Local 1877 calculates that the total cost to tenants of their proposed wage increase would come out to about one-third of a cent for every rental dollar that tenants currently pay. The best argument that building contractor spokesperson Dick Davis could muster on Monday was: ”While some building owners are very rich, others aren‘t.“ I suppose this distinction rests on one’s definition of ”very rich,“ since it‘s hard to believe there are class-A properties around L.A. that anyone other than a multimillionaire could own.
What’s not in dispute is that the janitors are very poor. A janitor working a full shift year-round at the current union rate won‘t make the $16,700 that the federal government sets as the poverty level for a family of four. (The 30 percent of the local janitorial work force that’s non-union staggers along at about $12,000 per year, according to 1877‘s estimates.) What’s more, the janitors are just emblematic of the whole of the Other Los Angeles -- America‘s capital of low-wage work, where the poverty rate rose from 13 percent in 1980 to 15 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 1998. Today, the janitors are just about the only people in L.A. who have a plausible plan not just to cap, but actually reduce, the number of Angelenos who live in poverty. They have the vision, and, remarkably, they’ve amassed the power. Which is why, in the matter of Blanca Buendia et. al. vs. Richard Ziman et. al., my money‘s on Buendia. #
Staff writer Joseph Trevi√Īo contributed to this story.