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Hearts and Minds -and Hard Cash

Photo by Ted Soqui

As their strike moves through its third week, it’s abundantly clear that the janitors have won Los Angeles’ heart. It’s not clear at all, however, whether they’ve won its pocketbook. (As we go to press, we’re told a settlement may be imminent. Then again, we ran this sentence in last week’s issue, too.)

On Tuesday night, negotiations resumed after breaking off last Friday, following a session in which management effectively offered no new proposals. At that session, according to Service Employees (SEIU) Local 1877 president Mike Garcia, the representatives of the maintenance contractors conceded that the janitors had done a great job of “building all this political support — the cardinal, the mayor, Al Gore. They said we could even bring in the pope,” Garcia continued, “and it wouldn’t make any difference, because the people who sign their checks aren’t going to budge.” (As Stalin might have put it, How many checks can the pope write?)

The people who sign their checks, of course, are the owners of L.A.’s office towers, studios, shopping malls — whatever constitutes a class-A (that is, pricey) rental property. Twenty years ago, the building owners negotiated directly with the janitors, but in the decades since, they have created a useful fiction that the maintenance companies set the rates — even though it is they who tell the maintenance men what to pay. At a time when welfare recipients are everywhere adjured to take responsibility for their lives, L.A.’s wealthiest property holders have devised a system that enables them to deny all responsibility for their own greed.

The owners of L.A.’s class-A properties are divided between the mega-rich and the merely very rich. Among the megas, the largest owner in L.A. County is Arden ä Realty, which, according to its latest annual report and proxy statement, owns and manages a tidy 10 million square feet of office space locally (more than 15 million if you throw in Orange, Riverside and Kern counties). Much of Arden’s holdings are in the county’s outlying areas, such as Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley — among the areas, according to sources close to the negotiations, where the owners say they can’t afford the dollar-an-hour increase for which the janitors are asking.

Somehow, I suspect, Arden could manage to scrape by even if it shelled out $8 an hour for its janitors instead of $7. The company’s revenues in 1999 came to $340 million. Arden CEO Richard Ziman holds company stock valued last week at more than $46 million. It’s clear from the accompanying photo of one of Ziman’s two Beverly Hills homes that he has room to take in boarders just in case the settlement leaves him strapped.

Ziman’s fellow magnates can also likely absorb the shock of raising the janitors’ pay by a buck an hour. Sam Zell is chairman of Equity Properties, the largest property owner in Southern California (though not in L.A. proper) and, indeed, the largest in the U.S., with 77 million square feet. The last time Forbes ranked the richest Americans, Zell finished in 132nd place, worth about $1.8 billion. Warren “Ned” Spieker, whose Spieker Properties owns 41 million square feet of office space on the West Coast (3 million of that in L.A.), owned company stock worth $135 million last week, according to the company’s latest proxy statement. John Kilroy Jr., whose company owns 3.2 million square feet of office space in L.A. County, is a comparative piker, since the value of his shares in his company came to only $38 million last week. The list goes on and on.

In L.A.’s small-business community, meanwhile, a janitorial pay hike will come as welcome news — provided that hike is anywhere near what the janitors are proposing. The thousands of minority-owned mom-and-pop enterprises that service L.A.’s immigrant working class will see their revenues rise as the janitors bring home more money. “The janitors won’t take their wages and spend them elsewhere,” L.A. City Controller Rick Tuttle told me as he marched with the strikers from downtown to Century City two weeks ago. “They’ll buy more food, more sheets, more pillows, all of it right in their own neighborhoods.” (Tuttle, bless him, still remembers Keynesianism.)

The continuing miracle of the strike, of course, is the level of public support it has generated. Last Friday, as the janitors snaked through Westwood Village, tying up traffic at some intersections for a full 15 minutes, motorists got out of their cars to shake their fists — not in anger, but in support. At the front of a line of stuck cars at the intersection of Weyburn and Hilgard, Elissa Duarte had exited her car and joined in the janitors’ chants. Pausing reluctantly to answer my questions, she told me, “I support them! I agree with all their demands!” Then she turned back to the janitors and resumed shouting, “Arriba!” Right behind her, going nowhere in his SUV, a bearded senior rolled down his window, beamed, and pumped his fist in rhythm with the chanting.

 

Just as significant, though, was the reception the janitors had received a few minutes earlier as they marched through the normally quiet residential streets just east of the Village — one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in all L.A. Several of the marchers had been detailed to leaflet every house on the parade route, and they scuttled up to the doorways — careful always to stay on the walkways, never once (so far as I could see) stepping on the lawns — leaving fliers that asked, in large type, “We have to do all this for a penny?”

But even as the marchers were making their case to rich people who largely weren’t home, they were encountering poor people at almost every other house. As the marchers passed by, the housekeepers and gardeners and construction workers who labored in or on those houses came outside, smiling, shouting back at the janitors. On Weyburn, one housekeeper waved from an upstairs window, while next door, another housekeeper came down the walkway carrying her little girl. Two doors down, three guys re-roofing a house sat atop the ridgepole and cheered the marchers on.

The housekeepers, the gardeners, the roofers, the carpenters — all of them were Latino. As the century turns, virtually the entire working class in Los Angeles is Latino — most of it working beneath, or at, or barely above the poverty line. And even as the strike is unfolding as a latter-day Dickensian morality play for middle-class L.A., it is something far more immediate, inspiring and instructive, if a bit daunting, for the city’s proletariat.

Where the immigrant poor are already organized — and that’s not in very many places — the strike has engendered more militance. “The strike is really inspiring our members in other cities,” Steve Lerner, the national director of SEIU’s building services division, told me during Friday’s march. “Latino members have seen the coverage on Telemundo; it connects with Latinos everywhere. Our Chicago local [a half-Latino, half-Polish local that is itself on the verge of a strike] was nervous about going out; now they’re more confident.” (On Monday, the members of that local voted to authorize a strike.)

Where the immigrant poor aren’t organized — that is, in the vast majority of L.A. workplaces — the impact of the strike remains to be seen. A couple of years ago, one of American labor’s pre-eminent organizers spent several days going door to door on the East Side and in the cities lining the Long Beach Freeway, and proclaimed to me when he was done that the whole damn city was one big “hot shop” — organizer parlance for a work site where the employees are on the verge of walking out until the company recognizes their union. He was deliberately overstating, but perhaps not all that much. Two years ago, 75 percent of California’s Latino voters cast ä their ballots against Proposition 226, the Republicans’ attempt to cripple unions’ political programs — the highest level of opposition among any group in the state. Today, the janitors’ strike has made clear to voters and nonvoters alike that unions have the potential to lift the working poor out of poverty. Should the janitors prevail, it will make clear that unions have the ability to lift the poor from poverty.

But organization in today’s workplace is not simply a function of worker desire; if it were, at least a third of America’s workers would be employed in unionized work sites, rather than the 14 percent who actually are. Laws intended to protect workers in organizing campaigns are routinely flouted by most American employers.

How, then, to roll this strike on — how to build support for future organizing and bargaining campaigns in Los Angeles — has become the preoccupation of the County Federation of Labor in recent days. With the strike eliciting an unprecedented level of support from other local unions, the Fed convened a meeting of 22 local unions last week to discuss, in the words of Fed organizing director Jon Barton, “how we translate this incredible momentum and union solidarity into support for upcoming efforts.”

Most of these discussions concern bargaining: Over 250,000 local union members will have their contracts come up later this year. Some of the talks, though, concern organizing. “How can unions that are health-care consumers help organizing drives at hospitals or drugstores?” Barton asks. “How can we put thousands of members on the streets for other unions’ organizing drives?”

 

The fact that Barton is posing questions rather than offering answers suggests that none of this is easy, for either the Fed or its constituent locals. “This strike can both scare immigrants and inspire them,” says Maria Elena Durazo, who, as president of Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, has been organizing L.A.’s immigrant workers for years. “It all depends on what the respective unions do in their industries. Do we carry on that day-to-day work of challenging and developing immigrant workers [to become activists and leaders] in their workplaces? If we don’t, the strike on its own won’t inspire a whole spontaneous movement. It takes a particular kind of union, with tough organizers and a tough organizing program.”

Which is hardly the work of a single day, or strike. It took the SEIU 14 years to build Local 1877, to involve thousands of the members in real decision-making, to educate the members on the byzantine structure of the industry, to create a union as democratic as a New England town meeting and as mobile as Patton’s Third Army — so that when the time came to strike, members would not only take the considerable risk of walking off their jobs, but commit 15, 16 and 17 hours a day to the work of the strike. (The Third Army was marching again on Tuesday, when the local threw together a rally of 500 members, numerous state legislators and half the city council on three hours notice, so that Ted Kennedy, who was passing through town, could publicly endorse the strike.) In the past couple of decades, only a handful of other unions — the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees in Las Vegas first and foremost — have been able to create and sustain this kind of militant, unified commitment.

To affluent L.A., this has been all quite dazzling. To working-class L.A. — provided that other unions learn how to match 1877’s diligence, democracy and smarts — the lesson of the strike is more pointed, transforming the rhetorical to the real: Yes, we can do it. Si, se puede.


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