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
Another prominent lay member of the archdiocese heard about the impending mass during a Sunday meeting with the Fed‘s Contreras, and asked if he could attend. Contreras said of course, so Richard Riordan came to La Placita, too. Riordan’s record on economic justice matters is, to state it gently, a good deal more enigmatic than Mahony‘s. As mayor, he steadfastly opposed the enactment of the city’s living-wage ordinance; indeed, vetoed it, though the council immediately overrode him. At the same time, though, he often maintained that fairness dictated that nobody in his city should have to work at less than $10 an hour, which he said was the lowest figure anyone here could live on. He proclaimed that while he opposed legislating such wages, he hoped workers could win them in bargaining -- leading him to such anomolous positions as opposing the implementation of the living-wage ordinance at LAX, even as he worked the phones with airline CEOs to persuade them to boost the pay of the airport‘s security screeners and food-service employees.
So there was Riordan at La Placita, telling the strikers that their demands were very reasonable. The mayor’s position, says Deputy Mayor Manuel Valencia, is that ”the wages that the strikers are now earning are simply not a livable wage, not for anyone, not in Los Angeles.“ And, like the cardinal, Riordan was also working the phones -- ”making clear to the building owners,“ as Valencia puts it, ”that they needed to sit down at the table and hammer out some sort of reasonable contract.“
Nor was this new pro-janitor consensus confined to L.A. On Monday, the state Assembly met in Sacramento and passed by a margin of 45-to-12 a resolution of support for the janitors, authored by outgoing Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and Member Gil Cedillo and blessed by Hertzberg. All 43 Democrats present voted yes; so did two conservative Republicans.
While the janitors were publicly picking up all these -- in some cases, very improbable -- allies, they were also the beneficiary of considerable private politicking on their behalf. By Tuesday, said one source close to the negotiations, Villaraigosa (long the janitors‘ foremost champion), Yaroslavsky and their newfound friend, the mayor, were ”working full time“ to convince the building owners to come to the table. In fact, the janitors were confronting an unprecedented dilemma. ”One of the problems is that everybody is helping out,“ said another source privy to some of the discussions. ”For once, the janitors may have more help than they know what to do with.“
And by Tuesday, all that help was clearly paying off. L.A.’s major building owners were beginning to respond to the cardinal and the bipartisan troika of Antonio, Zev and Dick. Rob Maguire III, of Playa Vista fame, was said to be taking the lead, calling together his fellow mega-magnates to meet with the janitors on Tuesday night. As for the janitors, said a City Hall insider, ”They‘re more comfortable bargaining now that the public is so clearly with them. They can cut the building owners a little slack; settle, say, for 90 percent of what they were asking. They know the strike is difficult for their members, and I can’t imagine they‘d stay out for a couple of more weeks just to get the last little bit.“
IV. Sudden Kindness
The janitors prepared brilliantly for this strike, but one thing has taken them completely by surprise: the overwhelming level of public backing, both here and abroad. The union has received statements of support from other unions as far away as Pakistan, Trinidad and Switzerland (a bank tellers’ local).
This is all quite unprecedented. As SEIU‘s janitors have built up their locals over the past decade, they’ve been compelled time and again to take it to the streets, to block traffic, to disrupt business-as-usual in one city after another, simply to win a union contract. The need to disrupt has customarily eclipsed their work on their public image. They have never depended on the kindness of strangers.
As of now, though, they sure as hell got it. Most amazingly, perhaps, Angelenos have reacted to the demonstrations not as the angry motorists they often are, but as the concerned citizens they‘re often not. Weekly researcher Sofiya Goldshteyn interviewed some onlookers who were leaving their offices during Friday’s rally in Century City, where traffic had ground to a halt, and was told again and again that the rightness of the janitors‘ cause justified whatever havoc they were wreaking. ”I agree with what they’re doing; the disruption is worth it,“ said attorney Sam Malone of Loeb and Loeb. ”Yeah, what the hell, they deserve a raise,“ said Erin Hadin of Sun America (Eli Broad‘s company). ”They clean all the crap out of the buildings.“
Whether this rather basic level of understanding will persist if the strike wears on is anybody’s guess. But no one would have predicted the astonishing response that the public has already accorded the janitors.
Which, in fact, is one more reason why the janitors deserve their raise. By making visible the lives of our immigrant poor, by making plausible a solution to their poverty, they have -- in 10 short days -- improved us all. The cardinal has never been truer to the Sermon on the Mount, nor the mayor more attentive to his city‘s deepest dilemma, nor the inhabitants of this First World metropolis more open to -- and willing to remedy -- the plight of those who live here at near--Third World wages. Attempting to better their own lives, the janitors have also made Los Angeles a better city.