The Red Sea 

How the janitors won their strike

Wednesday, Apr 26 2000
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

I. Choose Your Miracle

There are any number of ways to gauge just how much the three-week strike of L.A.’s janitors has changed, and electrified, Los Angeles. We could begin with the cult that’s arisen around the janitors’ T-shirts, that sea of red that rolled through L.A.’s streets all this April. By the strike’s second week, the T-shirts had come to symbolize something so momentous — and so cool — that people were buying them off the janitors’ backs. By week three, knock-offs of the T-shirts started popping up in the garment district.

Or there’s the amazing transformation of local TV news, generally the purveyor of the most substance-free newscasts in all the land. In the past three weeks, however, TV news has been all over the janitors’ strike, not just covering the street heat but also pausing to mention the janitors’ wage rates. (Besides, every minute the stations devoted to the strike was a minute taken away from their Elian coverage. If the janitors had accomplished nothing more than that, they would deserve the thanks of a grateful city.)

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Then there’s the civic betterment of civic leaders, some of whom worked steadily on the janitors’ behalf all this month. Speaker Emeritus Antonio Villaraigosa persuaded Eli Broad to recruit the mayor to the janitors’ cause. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was on the phone regularly with the building owners, persuading them to lean on the building contractors to settle with the strikers. One owner who didn’t need persuading was mega-developer Rob Maguire of Playa Vista fame, who repeatedly made the janitors’ case to the contractors and his fellow owners. This Monday, an immaculately tailored Maguire came to the janitors’ rally immediately following their vote to ratify the settlement, where he donned a janitors’ cap and autographed T-shirts for members, as their fellow janitors did a wild victory merengue dance and sprayed water on one another. There may have been stranger tableaus in recent L.A. history, but I can’t think of one.

Finally, simply, there’s this: The janitors won their strike. It may be hard to grasp just how astonishing this is until you try to tally up the number of local strikes by private-sector unions over the past dozen years that have ended in victory. It’s pretty slim pickings. In 1996, the Teamsters won a strike by tortilla-delivery-truck drivers at Guerrero Foods. In 1992, the dry-wallers won a strike against the home-building industry.

And that’s about it. Over the past quarter-century, the strike — once labor’s most potent weapon — has all but vanished from the unions’ playbook, for the simple reason that labor kept coming out on the losing side. With both membership and élan in a decades-long slide, and management power steadily increasing, strikes were out of the question. “We didn’t take people out very often,” says Bill Robertson, who headed the L.A. County Federation of Labor from 1975 until 1993. “We didn’t have the troops.”

The janitors did have the troops, and — to their considerable surprise — they unleashed a torrent of public support. Clearly, they touched a nerve that no one else had previously been able to locate quite so precisely. The striking UPS drivers won public backing in 1997, but it was nothing like the love fest of the past three weeks. The Hotel and Restaurant workers who won new contracts from L.A. hotels in 1998 had the steady, very visible support of the local clergy — but while they undertook all kinds of actions, they thought it prudent not to take things as far as a strike.

At first glance, the janitors might seem the least likely union to wage, and win, a strike. Their wages are too low to give them any cushion when they go out. Their work sites are too numerous and dispersed to enable the union to concentrate members effectively at more than a few locations. The diffusion of work sites should make it difficult for the workers to bond together as an effective force. The structure of the industry — with 18 maintenance companies negotiating up-front, while a like number of building owners negotiate behind the scenes — can mean that the least wealthy, or most stingy, contractor can gum up a settlement.

By any of these measures, a strike might seem totally nuts. And yet, the members of Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — all of them poor, all but a handful of them immigrants (like the dry-wallers and the Guerrero drivers), most of them women — went out. And prevailed.


II. War on the Streets!

At 1877, the union’s leaders had spent half a decade preparing the members for just such an action. Over the past five years, members have learned how to run meetings and provide services to their fellow members; they’ve mastered the arcane structure of their industry. The week before the strike vote, says Triana Silton, the remarkable staffer who coordinated the entire campaign, the union convened its stewards’ council — the 100 key local activists — and said, “If we go out, you folks will have to run this strike.” Which, the stewards pledged, they would.

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