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
Photo by Ted Soqui
As their strike moves through its third week, it’s abundantly clear that the janitors have won Los Angeles’ heart. It’s not clear at all, however, whether they’ve won its pocketbook. (As we go to press, we’re told a settlement may be imminent. Then again, we ran this sentence in last week’s issue, too.)
On Tuesday night, negotiations resumed after breaking off last Friday, following a session in which management effectively offered no new proposals. At that session, according to Service Employees (SEIU) Local 1877 president Mike Garcia, the representatives of the maintenance contractors conceded that the janitors had done a great job of “building all this political support — the cardinal, the mayor, Al Gore. They said we could even bring in the pope,” Garcia continued, “and it wouldn’t make any difference, because the people who sign their checks aren’t going to budge.” (As Stalin might have put it, How many checks can the pope write?)
The people who sign their checks, of course, are the owners of L.A.’s office towers, studios, shopping malls — whatever constitutes a class-A (that is, pricey) rental property. Twenty years ago, the building owners negotiated directly with the janitors, but in the decades since, they have created a useful fiction that the maintenance companies set the rates — even though it is they who tell the maintenance men what to pay. At a time when welfare recipients are everywhere adjured to take responsibility for their lives, L.A.’s wealthiest property holders have devised a system that enables them to deny all responsibility for their own greed.
The owners of L.A.’s class-A properties are divided between the mega-rich and the merely very rich. Among the megas, the largest owner in L.A. County is Arden √§ Realty, which, according to its latest annual report and proxy statement, owns and manages a tidy 10 million square feet of office space locally (more than 15 million if you throw in Orange, Riverside and Kern counties). Much of Arden’s holdings are in the county’s outlying areas, such as Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley — among the areas, according to sources close to the negotiations, where the owners say they can’t afford the dollar-an-hour increase for which the janitors are asking.
Somehow, I suspect, Arden could manage to scrape by even if it shelled out $8 an hour for its janitors instead of $7. The company’s revenues in 1999 came to $340 million. Arden CEO Richard Ziman holds company stock valued last week at more than $46 million. It’s clear from the accompanying photo of one of Ziman’s two Beverly Hills homes that he has room to take in boarders just in case the settlement leaves him strapped.
Ziman’s fellow magnates can also likely absorb the shock of raising the janitors’ pay by a buck an hour. Sam Zell is chairman of Equity Properties, the largest property owner in Southern California (though not in L.A. proper) and, indeed, the largest in the U.S., with 77 million square feet. The last time Forbes ranked the richest Americans, Zell finished in 132nd place, worth about $1.8 billion. Warren “Ned” Spieker, whose Spieker Properties owns 41 million square feet of office space on the West Coast (3 million of that in L.A.), owned company stock worth $135 million last week, according to the company’s latest proxy statement. John Kilroy Jr., whose company owns 3.2 million square feet of office space in L.A. County, is a comparative piker, since the value of his shares in his company came to only $38 million last week. The list goes on and on.
In L.A.’s small-business community, meanwhile, a janitorial pay hike will come as welcome news — provided that hike is anywhere near what the janitors are proposing. The thousands of minority-owned mom-and-pop enterprises that service L.A.’s immigrant working class will see their revenues rise as the janitors bring home more money. “The janitors won’t take their wages and spend them elsewhere,” L.A. City Controller Rick Tuttle told me as he marched with the strikers from downtown to Century City two weeks ago. “They’ll buy more food, more sheets, more pillows, all of it right in their own neighborhoods.” (Tuttle, bless him, still remembers Keynesianism.)
The continuing miracle of the strike, of course, is the level of public support it has generated. Last Friday, as the janitors snaked through Westwood Village, tying up traffic at some intersections for a full 15 minutes, motorists got out of their cars to shake their fists — not in anger, but in support. At the front of a line of stuck cars at the intersection of Weyburn and Hilgard, Elissa Duarte had exited her car and joined in the janitors’ chants. Pausing reluctantly to answer my questions, she told me, “I support them! I agree with all their demands!” Then she turned back to the janitors and resumed shouting, “Arriba!” Right behind her, going nowhere in his SUV, a bearded senior rolled down his window, beamed, and pumped his fist in rhythm with the chanting.