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The Red Sea 

How the janitors won their strike

Wednesday, Apr 26 2000
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Page 4 of 4

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

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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.

As Garcia told me after the meeting, the meaning of the strike for the Latino community, in L.A. and beyond, was profound. Some of the loudest cheers at the meeting came when Garcia vowed that the union’s next fight (after it wins new contracts in San Diego and the Silicon Valley; 1877 is a statewide local) would be for a new amnesty for undocumented residents. With considerable support from local clergy, the County Fed has scheduled a mass meeting for June to build support for the proposal. (Which poses an exquisite dilemma for the Republicans: Do they oppose the proposal and risk further alienating California’s fastest-growing voting bloc, or do they support it and risk having hundreds of thousands of new voters — the vast majority of them Democratic — come to the polls?)

The strike has also confirmed a new order in the political firmament of Latino California. The janitors, in tandem with Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, have supplanted the United Farm Workers as the political powerhouse and moral beacon of local Latino politics. It was the UFW’s legendary Dolores Huerta who coined the slogan “Si, se puede” (“Yes, we can do it”) for a union of immigrants who’d come to rural California. Today, the slogan has been picked up by the unions representing, at least in spirit, the millions of immigrants who’ve since settled in urban California; and it is these unions whose members have shown, in fact, that they can do it — win good contracts and amass political clout. Twenty-five years ago, the Farm Workers and their allies walked more precincts in Latino L.A. than anyone else. Today, the members of locals 1877 and 11 — the janitors and hotel workers — walk more precincts than anyone else, have amassed more political support than anyone else, and have caught the imagination and won the allegiance of a new generation of immigrants.

The full meaning of the janitors’ strike — the extent to which it will galvanize L.A.’s immigrant poor, or prod unions to develop new organizing campaigns, or build support for other union efforts or living-wage legislation — is impossible to predict. Clearly, this isn’t Detroit in the spring of 1937, where the victory of the sit-down strikers over General Motors prompted a rash of spontaneous sit-downs in factories, offices, hotels, restaurants, stores and automats all across town. Forming a union is in every way more difficult now than it was then.

But by the standards of L.A. in the year 2000, when they’re making knockoffs of your T-shirts, you’ve arrived.

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