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Last week 200 of Southern California’s aerospace-industry janitors dropped mops to begin a "snowball" strike that may soon involve more of the 700 unionized custodians working at plants in Redondo Beach, El Segundo, Torrance and Long Beach. The janitors are represented by Local 1877 — the Janitors for Justice unit of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose somewhat unorthodox strike strategy involves negotiating for higher wages and health-care benefits with the three custodial services with which SEIU holds contracts (Servicon Systems, Aramark and Somers Building Maintenance Inc.), even as the union pickets the corporate headquarters of third parties Boeing, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. The three defense giants are only clients of the custodial services and have no direct link with the janitors or SEIU, but the union believes it can shame the corporations into paying these services more in order to give its low-wage janitors a better contract.
"You’ve got to look at the big picture," acting L.A. County Federation of Labor chief Martin Ludlow told the Weekly before addressing a Thursday rally in front of Raytheon’s El Segundo headquarters. "It is shameful that the wealthiest corporations can’t offer dignity and respect to the workers who clean its buildings."
SEIU’s beef with the companies is repeated with metronomic regularity: It claims its members net about $1,000 per month, have no medical benefits and are routinely harassed and sometimes fired for their union activity. Because the custodial companies claim they will lose their service contracts if they substantially raise wages and benefits, SEIU must appeal to the employers’ clients.
"Workers know the real decision makers here are Boeing, Raytheon and Grumman," said SEIU spokeswoman Lisa Gallegos. She pointed out that in the past SEIU has persuaded other corporate third parties in Silicon Valley and among downtown L.A.’s building owners to sit down at the same bargaining table with the union and janitorial firms.
"This is a very savvy union," said Ruth Milkman, a UCLA sociology professor and labor expert. "Any company would have to be out of its mind not to take this campaign seriously. [SEIU’s] strategy is to make it easier for the real employers — Boeing and Raytheon — to say yes. Even defense contractors have a public image that they don’t want marred."
Nevertheless, the companies’ last, best and final offer, according to Dick Davis, a spokesman for negotiators for the three custodial services, is an increase of $2.76 per hour in wages and benefits over three years. Davis noted in a phone interview that this package includes a Kaiser single-coverage health-care plan.
The custodial companies have hired temporary replacement workers, but the bargaining door remains open — the two sides are scheduled to meet this Friday. Meanwhile, the pickets remain out in front of the three aerospace headquarters, and the Teamsters have pledged not to cross their lines.
On Wednesday 300 janitors and their supporters rallied near LAX. There, during a protest pre-arranged with law enforcement, 16 people were arrested by El Segundo cops for sitting down in the intersection of Imperial Highway and Hughes Way.
"This is about workers’ rights to protest peacefully," said the County Fed’s Ludlow.
"That’s BS," the companies’ bargaining coordinator Davis said, somewhat laconically. "That’s a secondary boycott."