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
III. On The Nickel
That last nickel was particularly important to the union because it removed from the settlement the stigma of a two-tier deal. The problem confronting the union is that its members work at two different wage rates — close to $8 an hour in downtown and Century City (where unionization dates from around 1990, and where the rate of unionization is about 90 percent); and close to $7 an hour everywhere else in the county (where unionization dates from around five years ago or even more recently, and where the unionization rate is about 70 percent). This is not that unusual a pattern: In Chicago, for instance, janitors downtown have a much higher wage scale than janitors in the newer suburbs and edge cities, where unionization is far more recent.
On last Friday, then, the contractors proposed an hourly raise of 70 cents in the first year of the contract for janitors downtown and in Century City (called Area 1), and 60 cents in each of the two following years of the three-year contract. For all the other janitors, in Area 2, they proposed a first-year hourly raise of 25 cents, followed by 60-cent raises in each of the two subsequent years. The first-year raise for Area 2 was woefully meager, but it looked worse than it actually was. Just this January, Area 2 janitors had received fully paid family health insurance and a 40-cent raise, in accordance with the terms of their 1995 contract. (Area 1 janitors had received this years earlier.) The contractors argued that following that increase with another major one next month was more than they could afford. For its part, the union didn’t have the leverage to push them much further, but it wanted a 30-cent increase — so that, when added to January’s 40 cents, the total for the year came to 70 cents, the same figure Area 1 janitors received. Management was holding out for 25. Thus, the final conflict in the janitors’ strike.
(According to one source close to the negotiations, the contractors hadn’t really set aside the funds to start up the health insurance in January, because, when they agreed to it in 1995, they assumed that national health care would have been enacted by this January. Since the Gingrich Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, it’s hard to fathom just what the contractors were thinking.)
In negotiations Saturday night, the union finally got its nickel. With that, the total raise for Area 2 employees amounted to a 26.5 percent increase over the three years, and for Area 1 employees, a 25.5 percent increase. Nonetheless, when the contract was explained to members at Monday’s meeting, it was met with a barrage of questions — indignant questions: Why hadn’t the Area 2 wage come up to the level of Area 1’s? Why did the Area 2 wage kick in a full five months later than Area 1’s?
One question that wasn’t asked but hung over the proceedings was this: We told the world we were striking for a dollar-an-hour raise. What happened to that?
In fact, said one source close to the union, “The local said ‘a dollar an hour’ with no intent of engraving it in stone. Then the cardinal and the mayor picked it up, and it resonated with the public. But we’d never planned to make it a non-negotiable demand.”
Between desire and reality fell the shadow. “The members have a clear understanding they deserve a dollar-an-hour increase,” says Triana Silton. “But they also understand that a 26 percent increase over three years is substantial.”
At least one union staffer, listening to the onslaught of critical questions at Monday’s meeting, said he feared the contract wouldn’t be ratified. But each question was answered by one or another janitor who’d sat on the negotiating committee, and committee members from both Area 1 and Area 2 told the members what they’d won and where they’d been unable to push the contractors any further. They went over the particulars again and again, until, all solicitude spent, one of the negotiators — the gravel-voiced Rosa Ayala — told them, “If you understand this, fine. If, after all this, you don’t, it’s your own goddamn problem!” With that, the janitors voted — and, by a margin of 1,747 to 91, accepted the settlement.
Local president Mike Garcia, who’s worked on SEIU’s Justice for Janitors ä campaign since it began in the mid-’80s, had also provided the answers to many of the members’ questions. Now he stepped to the mike and told them, “You may be returning to work as janitors, but you will never live in the dark again!” Amid the cheers, Garcia continued. “You can go back to work tonight,” he said — and the member standing next to me, a middle-aged woman, softly and sadly moaned, “Oh.” “Or tomorrow,” Garcia added, as the crowd cheered and the woman smiled.
Iv. brave new world, sort OF
Janitorial work remains janitorial work, no matter what the union does, but Local 1877’s victory has managed to alter a number of features in the local landscape. The union is now freed up to concentrate on organizing the quarter of the L.A. work force that’s not unionized, and the workers in Orange County’s high-rises, which are entirely non-union. The L.A. labor movement hopes to translate the goodwill that the janitors have won into public support for the nearly 300,000 other local union members whose contracts come up later this year — a tricky task, since the janitors’ hold on the moral high ground cannot automatically be transferred to other workers.