Enter the Janitors 

Transforming L.A.

Wednesday, Apr 12 2000

I. Where Are We?

Toto, I don‘t think we’re in Los Angeles anymore.

We‘re talking L.A., remember: a city whose original raison d’etre was to be the West Coast‘s bastion of anti-unionism, and more recently, a city whose labor movement was both somnolent and invisible. It’s a city where Westsiders don‘t travel east of La Brea; where the 600,000 workers in manufacturing toil, invisibly, in some distant quadrant of town; where the parking attendants and gardeners and janitors toil, just as invisibly, before our very eyes. The national capital of low-wage work, which resolutely refuses to think about it.

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Where has that city gone in the past 10 days? What has happened to America’s foremost metropolis-in-denial?

The janitors have happened. The continuing strike of Service Employees Local 1877, the janitors union, has had an astonishing effect on Los Angeles, where the normal level of social and political consciousness runs from “false” to “un.” The most in-your-face union in town has managed to put the ugly reality of work that doesn‘t pay enough to live smack in the middle of everyone’s face. Even the local TV “newscasts” have given considerable coverage to the strike and have been compelled to mention the ridiculous wage rates at which the janitors work.

And so, the city has been forced to confront all this poverty-wage stuff -- with consequences that have been nothing short of amazing. (By the time you read this, in fact, it‘s quite possible the janitors already will have prevailed.) Last Friday, when the janitors marched down Wilshire Boulevard from downtown to Century City, the overwhelming majority of motorists honking weren’t angry, but rather were signaling support. Indeed, support for the janitors seemed to build along the parade route. At first, some office workers came out of their building to offer cautious endorsements. “I think it‘s good they’re coming forward, asking for their rights,” said Laura Kim, a staff accountant in an office building just west of downtown. They‘re asking for -- a dollar [more] an hour, isn’t it? This economy can afford that. I think it‘s great.“

The march paused at Normandie Avenue, where the first of the day’s miracles occurred. Elected officials, gathered for a breakfast meeting inside an adjacent hotel, went out to the flatbed truck leading the parade, and climbed up on it to signal their support. There was the usual progressive retinue -- the Gloria Romeros and Hilda Solises of L.A. politics. But the supporters also included the center, if not center-right, of the Democratic Party. At the breakfast preceding the rally, incoming Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg -- the Van Nuys--based legislator often labeled a ”business Democrat“ -- pledged that the Assembly would pass a resolution of support for the strikers. There on the flatbed stood Jane Harman, the business-oriented former Congress member now seeking election again in her stolidly centrist South Bay district. Also on the truck was the city‘s leading law-enforcement official, City Attorney James Hahn, as well as a passel of other electeds from across the Democratic spectrum.

They heard Jesse Jackson tell the strikers that Moses and Jesus and Dr. King and Cesar Chavez had marched, too, and that the strikers were marching in the same spirit. They heard janitor Maria Cuevas tell the crowd, ”Not even the cops can stop us in this struggle! Not even la migra!“ -- and not even the most law-’n‘-order Democrat amongst them was seen to flinch.

It was all a far cry from the janitors’ first march to Century City, 10 years ago, when they were first building their union. Then, they were greeted by the LAPD‘s finest, who, ignoring the janitors’ permit to march, beat the living hell out of them. Last Friday, with priests, rabbis, Jesse Jackson and two of L.A.‘s three citywide elected officials -- City Controller Rick Tuttle and City Attorney Hahn -- marching in the parade’s front row, and with Hahn telling the janitors, ”The city of Los Angeles supports you,“ an old-fashioned police riot was clearly not an option. (Nonetheless, two busfuls of cops -- in addition to the dozens on the street -- followed discreetly behind the marchers, themselves followed by three empty police buses in case there were arrests.)

As the march moved westward, the people on sidewalks, the people coming out of buildings, started to give the janitors the thumbs-up sign, and here and there were cheering. The reception grew steadily warmer as the march moved into Beverly Hills, and then the second miracle of the day happened: People not only were coming down from the buildings to show their support. They were darting into the street and handing the strikers cash. The power of guilt, occasioned by the power of the janitors to tell their story, to break through L.A.‘s wall of denial, had produced an outbreak of spontaneous redistribution: a phenomenon never before recorded in the greater Los Angeles region. So that when the march ended amid the high-rises of Century City, and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (who, when it comes to the janitors, is a virtual Bolshevik) told the marchers that he knew millionaires in those towers who supported them, it didn’t seem that fanciful at all.

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