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Enter the Janitors

I. Where Are We?

Toto, I don‘t think we’re in Los Angeles anymore.

We‘re talking L.A., remember: a city whose original raison d’etre was to be the West Coast‘s bastion of anti-unionism, and more recently, a city whose labor movement was both somnolent and invisible. It’s a city where Westsiders don‘t travel east of La Brea; where the 600,000 workers in manufacturing toil, invisibly, in some distant quadrant of town; where the parking attendants and gardeners and janitors toil, just as invisibly, before our very eyes. The national capital of low-wage work, which resolutely refuses to think about it.

Where has that city gone in the past 10 days? What has happened to America’s foremost metropolis-in-denial?

The janitors have happened. The continuing strike of Service Employees Local 1877, the janitors union, has had an astonishing effect on Los Angeles, where the normal level of social and political consciousness runs from “false” to “un.” The most in-your-face union in town has managed to put the ugly reality of work that doesn‘t pay enough to live smack in the middle of everyone’s face. Even the local TV “newscasts” have given considerable coverage to the strike and have been compelled to mention the ridiculous wage rates at which the janitors work.

And so, the city has been forced to confront all this poverty-wage stuff -- with consequences that have been nothing short of amazing. (By the time you read this, in fact, it‘s quite possible the janitors already will have prevailed.) Last Friday, when the janitors marched down Wilshire Boulevard from downtown to Century City, the overwhelming majority of motorists honking weren’t angry, but rather were signaling support. Indeed, support for the janitors seemed to build along the parade route. At first, some office workers came out of their building to offer cautious endorsements. “I think it‘s good they’re coming forward, asking for their rights,” said Laura Kim, a staff accountant in an office building just west of downtown. They‘re asking for -- a dollar [more] an hour, isn’t it? This economy can afford that. I think it‘s great.“

The march paused at Normandie Avenue, where the first of the day’s miracles occurred. Elected officials, gathered for a breakfast meeting inside an adjacent hotel, went out to the flatbed truck leading the parade, and climbed up on it to signal their support. There was the usual progressive retinue -- the Gloria Romeros and Hilda Solises of L.A. politics. But the supporters also included the center, if not center-right, of the Democratic Party. At the breakfast preceding the rally, incoming Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg -- the Van Nuys--based legislator often labeled a ”business Democrat“ -- pledged that the Assembly would pass a resolution of support for the strikers. There on the flatbed stood Jane Harman, the business-oriented former Congress member now seeking election again in her stolidly centrist South Bay district. Also on the truck was the city‘s leading law-enforcement official, City Attorney James Hahn, as well as a passel of other electeds from across the Democratic spectrum.

They heard Jesse Jackson tell the strikers that Moses and Jesus and Dr. King and Cesar Chavez had marched, too, and that the strikers were marching in the same spirit. They heard janitor Maria Cuevas tell the crowd, ”Not even the cops can stop us in this struggle! Not even la migra!“ -- and not even the most law-’n‘-order Democrat amongst them was seen to flinch.

It was all a far cry from the janitors’ first march to Century City, 10 years ago, when they were first building their union. Then, they were greeted by the LAPD‘s finest, who, ignoring the janitors’ permit to march, beat the living hell out of them. Last Friday, with priests, rabbis, Jesse Jackson and two of L.A.‘s three citywide elected officials -- City Controller Rick Tuttle and City Attorney Hahn -- marching in the parade’s front row, and with Hahn telling the janitors, ”The city of Los Angeles supports you,“ an old-fashioned police riot was clearly not an option. (Nonetheless, two busfuls of cops -- in addition to the dozens on the street -- followed discreetly behind the marchers, themselves followed by three empty police buses in case there were arrests.)

As the march moved westward, the people on sidewalks, the people coming out of buildings, started to give the janitors the thumbs-up sign, and here and there were cheering. The reception grew steadily warmer as the march moved into Beverly Hills, and then the second miracle of the day happened: People not only were coming down from the buildings to show their support. They were darting into the street and handing the strikers cash. The power of guilt, occasioned by the power of the janitors to tell their story, to break through L.A.‘s wall of denial, had produced an outbreak of spontaneous redistribution: a phenomenon never before recorded in the greater Los Angeles region. So that when the march ended amid the high-rises of Century City, and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (who, when it comes to the janitors, is a virtual Bolshevik) told the marchers that he knew millionaires in those towers who supported them, it didn’t seem that fanciful at all.

II. How Did We Get Here?

Building this level of support for a strike that is the most disruptive the city has known in years is no small achievement. The credit for lining up all those pols certainly belongs to the janitors, who have been the most active union in L.A. come election time for several years now -- but not to the janitors alone. For when they walk precincts, it is under the aegis and guidance of the County Federation of Labor. Since Miguel Contreras became Fed head in 1996, the Fed has become such a fearsome player in local politics -- during that time winning 16 of the 17 races it targeted for union involvement -- that politicians ignore it at their own peril.

Moreover, the Fed, in Contreras‘ words, ”has been constantly raising the bar for what it takes to get our support.“ Since John Sweeney took the helm at the national AFL-CIO in 1995, the union movement, in fits and starts, has tried to raise that bar for electeds all across the country. Only in L.A., however, have the unions truly put the fear of God into fair-weather Democrats. The County Fed went further than any prominent labor body in the U.S. last month when it backed Hilda Solis, a state senator with a militantly pro-labor record, against 18-year incumbent Democratic Congressman Marty Martinez, who’d voted with labor most of the time but had taken a walk on some key issues such as fast-track foreign-trade agreements. The Fed put hundreds of volunteers into the campaign, identifying and turning out 15,000 pro-Solis union household voters on Election Day. When Solis unseated Martinez by a stunning 69-percent-to-31-percent margin, Contreras‘ ”bar“ was abruptly raised halfway to the roof.

It was the Fed that had scheduled the breakfast for labor-backed electeds on Friday morning last week -- and the room was full of them, haunted by the ghost of Marty Martinez. It was the Fed that made sure the breakfast was held in a hotel along the route of the march. It was the Fed, along with the janitors, that convinced incoming Speaker Hertzberg that reaching the bar meant passing an Assembly resolution of support for the janitors. Indeed, Hertzberg used the breakfast meeting to tell labor that, even though he didn’t have outgoing Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa‘s background in kick-ass unionism, or his avowedly progressive politics, he was still a union guy. ”I worked for you early on,“ he said, ”for [union leader] Maria Elena Durazo, for Hilda Solis in her earliest races. They are the core of who I am, and I ain’t losin‘ ’em! I will not lose my way!“

Even as the Fed has helped the janitors line up all those pols, it‘s also lined up an unprecedented number of other unions to actively support the strike. With contracts expiring for more than 250,000 L.A. union workers this year, unions in L.A. have become something all but unheard-of in labor today: a movement where unions help each other out, show up for each other’s rallies and honor each other‘s picket lines. At the beginning of last week, the Teamsters refused to pick up trash or make UPS deliveries in buildings the janitors had struck. At the end of last week, the Operating Engineers union, whose members maintain and fix the elevators, the air conditioning, and all things mechanical in L.A.’s high-rises, informed its members that it would give them strike pay out of the union‘s own treasury if those members honored the janitors’ picket line. Until this year, the Operating Engineers gave no indication that they cared whether the janitors lived or died. To the surprise of longtime union activists, actual signs of solidarity are springing up all over the local labor movement.

III. ”More Help Than

They Know What To Do With“

By the weekend, it was clear to every political player in Los Angeles that the janitors had seized the moral high ground and were not about to relinquish it. As one local official sized up the situation, ”The momentum‘s with the janitors, public sentiment’s with the janitors, the economic arguments are overwhelmingly with the janitors.“ Abruptly, the janitors‘ base of support had grown well beyond Democratic officials, to encompass much of L.A.’s power elite.

On Saturday, Cardinal Roger Mahony characterized the janitors‘ cause as one of ”fundamental economic justice.“ In fact, Mahony’s own record on issues of fundamental economic justice has not been flawless, but given the Church‘s ”preferential option for the poor,“ and his own cultivation of L.A.’s immigrant community, it would have been very difficult for the cardinal to duck the janitors‘ strike.

But he did more than simply not duck it. Over the weekend, Mahony was on the phone with a number of L.A.’s largest property owners, some of whom were prominent lay members of the archdiocese, urging them to meet with the strikers. On Monday, he effectively gave the union and its cause the strongest possible blessing by leading a mass for the janitors at La Placita, the church were Los Angeles began.

Another prominent lay member of the archdiocese heard about the impending mass during a Sunday meeting with the Fed‘s Contreras, and asked if he could attend. Contreras said of course, so Richard Riordan came to La Placita, too. Riordan’s record on economic justice matters is, to state it gently, a good deal more enigmatic than Mahony‘s. As mayor, he steadfastly opposed the enactment of the city’s living-wage ordinance; indeed, vetoed it, though the council immediately overrode him. At the same time, though, he often maintained that fairness dictated that nobody in his city should have to work at less than $10 an hour, which he said was the lowest figure anyone here could live on. He proclaimed that while he opposed legislating such wages, he hoped workers could win them in bargaining -- leading him to such anomolous positions as opposing the implementation of the living-wage ordinance at LAX, even as he worked the phones with airline CEOs to persuade them to boost the pay of the airport‘s security screeners and food-service employees.

So there was Riordan at La Placita, telling the strikers that their demands were very reasonable. The mayor’s position, says Deputy Mayor Manuel Valencia, is that ”the wages that the strikers are now earning are simply not a livable wage, not for anyone, not in Los Angeles.“ And, like the cardinal, Riordan was also working the phones -- ”making clear to the building owners,“ as Valencia puts it, ”that they needed to sit down at the table and hammer out some sort of reasonable contract.“

Nor was this new pro-janitor consensus confined to L.A. On Monday, the state Assembly met in Sacramento and passed by a margin of 45-to-12 a resolution of support for the janitors, authored by outgoing Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and Member Gil Cedillo and blessed by Hertzberg. All 43 Democrats present voted yes; so did two conservative Republicans.

While the janitors were publicly picking up all these -- in some cases, very improbable -- allies, they were also the beneficiary of considerable private politicking on their behalf. By Tuesday, said one source close to the negotiations, Villaraigosa (long the janitors‘ foremost champion), Yaroslavsky and their newfound friend, the mayor, were ”working full time“ to convince the building owners to come to the table. In fact, the janitors were confronting an unprecedented dilemma. ”One of the problems is that everybody is helping out,“ said another source privy to some of the discussions. ”For once, the janitors may have more help than they know what to do with.“

And by Tuesday, all that help was clearly paying off. L.A.’s major building owners were beginning to respond to the cardinal and the bipartisan troika of Antonio, Zev and Dick. Rob Maguire III, of Playa Vista fame, was said to be taking the lead, calling together his fellow mega-magnates to meet with the janitors on Tuesday night. As for the janitors, said a City Hall insider, ”They‘re more comfortable bargaining now that the public is so clearly with them. They can cut the building owners a little slack; settle, say, for 90 percent of what they were asking. They know the strike is difficult for their members, and I can’t imagine they‘d stay out for a couple of more weeks just to get the last little bit.“

IV. Sudden Kindness

The janitors prepared brilliantly for this strike, but one thing has taken them completely by surprise: the overwhelming level of public backing, both here and abroad. The union has received statements of support from other unions as far away as Pakistan, Trinidad and Switzerland (a bank tellers’ local).

This is all quite unprecedented. As SEIU‘s janitors have built up their locals over the past decade, they’ve been compelled time and again to take it to the streets, to block traffic, to disrupt business-as-usual in one city after another, simply to win a union contract. The need to disrupt has customarily eclipsed their work on their public image. They have never depended on the kindness of strangers.

As of now, though, they sure as hell got it. Most amazingly, perhaps, Angelenos have reacted to the demonstrations not as the angry motorists they often are, but as the concerned citizens they‘re often not. Weekly researcher Sofiya Goldshteyn interviewed some onlookers who were leaving their offices during Friday’s rally in Century City, where traffic had ground to a halt, and was told again and again that the rightness of the janitors‘ cause justified whatever havoc they were wreaking. ”I agree with what they’re doing; the disruption is worth it,“ said attorney Sam Malone of Loeb and Loeb. ”Yeah, what the hell, they deserve a raise,“ said Erin Hadin of Sun America (Eli Broad‘s company). ”They clean all the crap out of the buildings.“

Whether this rather basic level of understanding will persist if the strike wears on is anybody’s guess. But no one would have predicted the astonishing response that the public has already accorded the janitors.

Which, in fact, is one more reason why the janitors deserve their raise. By making visible the lives of our immigrant poor, by making plausible a solution to their poverty, they have -- in 10 short days -- improved us all. The cardinal has never been truer to the Sermon on the Mount, nor the mayor more attentive to his city‘s deepest dilemma, nor the inhabitants of this First World metropolis more open to -- and willing to remedy -- the plight of those who live here at near--Third World wages. Attempting to better their own lives, the janitors have also made Los Angeles a better city.


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