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
II. How Did We Get Here?
Building this level of support for a strike that is the most disruptive the city has known in years is no small achievement. The credit for lining up all those pols certainly belongs to the janitors, who have been the most active union in L.A. come election time for several years now -- but not to the janitors alone. For when they walk precincts, it is under the aegis and guidance of the County Federation of Labor. Since Miguel Contreras became Fed head in 1996, the Fed has become such a fearsome player in local politics -- during that time winning 16 of the 17 races it targeted for union involvement -- that politicians ignore it at their own peril.
Moreover, the Fed, in Contreras‘ words, ”has been constantly raising the bar for what it takes to get our support.“ Since John Sweeney took the helm at the national AFL-CIO in 1995, the union movement, in fits and starts, has tried to raise that bar for electeds all across the country. Only in L.A., however, have the unions truly put the fear of God into fair-weather Democrats. The County Fed went further than any prominent labor body in the U.S. last month when it backed Hilda Solis, a state senator with a militantly pro-labor record, against 18-year incumbent Democratic Congressman Marty Martinez, who’d voted with labor most of the time but had taken a walk on some key issues such as fast-track foreign-trade agreements. The Fed put hundreds of volunteers into the campaign, identifying and turning out 15,000 pro-Solis union household voters on Election Day. When Solis unseated Martinez by a stunning 69-percent-to-31-percent margin, Contreras‘ ”bar“ was abruptly raised halfway to the roof.
It was the Fed that had scheduled the breakfast for labor-backed electeds on Friday morning last week -- and the room was full of them, haunted by the ghost of Marty Martinez. It was the Fed that made sure the breakfast was held in a hotel along the route of the march. It was the Fed, along with the janitors, that convinced incoming Speaker Hertzberg that reaching the bar meant passing an Assembly resolution of support for the janitors. Indeed, Hertzberg used the breakfast meeting to tell labor that, even though he didn’t have outgoing Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa‘s background in kick-ass unionism, or his avowedly progressive politics, he was still a union guy. ”I worked for you early on,“ he said, ”for [union leader] Maria Elena Durazo, for Hilda Solis in her earliest races. They are the core of who I am, and I ain’t losin‘ ’em! I will not lose my way!“
Even as the Fed has helped the janitors line up all those pols, it‘s also lined up an unprecedented number of other unions to actively support the strike. With contracts expiring for more than 250,000 L.A. union workers this year, unions in L.A. have become something all but unheard-of in labor today: a movement where unions help each other out, show up for each other’s rallies and honor each other‘s picket lines. At the beginning of last week, the Teamsters refused to pick up trash or make UPS deliveries in buildings the janitors had struck. At the end of last week, the Operating Engineers union, whose members maintain and fix the elevators, the air conditioning, and all things mechanical in L.A.’s high-rises, informed its members that it would give them strike pay out of the union‘s own treasury if those members honored the janitors’ picket line. Until this year, the Operating Engineers gave no indication that they cared whether the janitors lived or died. To the surprise of longtime union activists, actual signs of solidarity are springing up all over the local labor movement.
III. ”More Help Than
They Know What To Do With“
By the weekend, it was clear to every political player in Los Angeles that the janitors had seized the moral high ground and were not about to relinquish it. As one local official sized up the situation, ”The momentum‘s with the janitors, public sentiment’s with the janitors, the economic arguments are overwhelmingly with the janitors.“ Abruptly, the janitors‘ base of support had grown well beyond Democratic officials, to encompass much of L.A.’s power elite.
On Saturday, Cardinal Roger Mahony characterized the janitors‘ cause as one of ”fundamental economic justice.“ In fact, Mahony’s own record on issues of fundamental economic justice has not been flawless, but given the Church‘s ”preferential option for the poor,“ and his own cultivation of L.A.’s immigrant community, it would have been very difficult for the cardinal to duck the janitors‘ strike.
But he did more than simply not duck it. Over the weekend, Mahony was on the phone with a number of L.A.’s largest property owners, some of whom were prominent lay members of the archdiocese, urging them to meet with the strikers. On Monday, he effectively gave the union and its cause the strongest possible blessing by leading a mass for the janitors at La Placita, the church were Los Angeles began.