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The Red Sea 

How the janitors won their strike

Wednesday, Apr 26 2000
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Page 2 of 4

Still, any field commander about to go into battle has to feel a little nervous, no matter how ready the troops. About a week before the strike vote, Silton called Jono ä Shaffer, who’d preceded her as the local Justice for Janitors coordinator. “She just wanted reassurance that we weren’t about to embark on a countywide strike with 25 activists to cover the whole city,” Shaffer says. “I told her what she knew, but wanted to hear anyway — we’d have a thousand.” And so they did.

They had to have a thousand, because this strike was waged at night as well as by day. In the sunlight, as the newscast helicopters hovered above them, they marched all over town. At sunset, the real work of the strike began, as they dispersed to the myriad of office buildings around L.A. “With so many buildings out,” says Shaffer, “you couldn’t possibly have staff at more than a handful. In most places, the members ran the strike and the picket lines and the scab patrols. The main change in this local over the past five years is the level of leadership the members have assumed, and the ownership they’ve asserted. In the past three weeks, we saw what that meant.”

In the end, the union pulled maybe half its 8,500 members onto the streets, in an effort to shut down the clean up of the office buildings in downtown, the Westside and the pricier parts of the Valley. To drive around L.A. by night over the past month was to see pickets clustered in the dark in Glendale and Santa Monica and along Ventura Boulevard, on sentry duty against strikebreakers — after they’d spent a day parading. The net they threw up had plenty of holes in it, but the clean-up in many of L.A.’s most prominent office buildings was rendered sporadic and haphazard during the course of the strike.

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For the owners of those buildings, the logic of settling grew more compelling with each passing day. As Maguire saw it, this was from the start a matter of dollars and sense. “This is a very productive work force and union. We support it,” he told me as the janitors danced around him. By late last week, he said, “Virtually all the major owners were 100 percent for a settlement.” A number of the maintenance contractors, however, were still balking: “On Thursday, we said, ‘Enough is enough!’ We said it had to be finished by Monday, and that we were prepared to enter into a separate agreement if it didn’t get done.”

On the management side of the table, finally, size mattered. Many of the major property owners, such as Equity of Chicago, own buildings all across the country, and the largest maintenance contractors, such as American Building Maintenance and OneSource, are nationwide as well. The SEIU has relationships with these companies in virtually every major U.S. city outside the South, with contracts up for renegotiation this spring in almost all these cities. An impasse in one city could easily bollix the works in the next. In the end, the big guys prevailed upon the small to reach a settlement.

Among the big guys, moreover, the institutional memory of just how disruptive the janitors could become had never really faded. Over the past 15 years, SEIU’s janitors had blocked streets and bridges, and all but closed off the downtowns of a number of cities. By last Friday, when the contractors were balking at the janitors’ demand for one more nickel and instead issued their own threat to hire permanent replacement workers if the union didn’t cave by Monday, the local labor establishment was prophesying war. “We take [the contractors’] threat as a declaration of war against the entire Los Angeles labor movement,” County Fed chief Miguel Contreras told strikers at a Friday-afternoon rally. The day before, over 70 unions had pledged $118,000 to the janitors and had promised to take to the streets. “On Tuesday, thousands of union members will join the janitors to completely shut down the ARCO Towers,” Contreras vowed. “Our message to the contractors is this: If you replace one single worker on Monday, there will be war on the streets of L.A.!”

As he spoke, Contreras knew that a settlement over the weekend was likely. Even so, his threat was credible — and the sort of thing that no head of a Central Labor Council of a major American city had delivered in probably half a century. It had been more than half a century, though, since L.A. labor had been so galvanized by a strike.

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