ON A BROILING AFTERNOON LAST THURSDAY, International Justice for Janitors Day, 200 purple-shirted members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) rallied for contracts at companies where they now hold none. They did not march past the usual downtown high-rises or aerospace-industry bunkers, but at CityWalk, the Universal Studios tourist attraction that presents visitors with an airbrushed simulacrum of the Los Angeles they sweep, mop and vacuum every day. Chanting in Spanish before signs for Abercrombie and Fitch, Zen Zone oxygen bar and a giant cutout of King Kong, the janitors from Local 1877 bewildered tourists seeking shade and a place to spend money. Was the march real, or a simulation — advertising, perhaps, for an Organized Labor Roller-Coaster Ride?
At one point a young blonde in cutoffs joined the march as her girlfriend took a picture — mugging for the lens while pretending to be a low-wage immigrant. The real low-wage earners, however, have been fighting for months to organize collective-bargaining units at CityWalk, NBC/Universal, ABC, CBS, Fox TV, Raleigh Studios, Warner Music Group and Hollywood Center Studios. Three hundred janitors there are hired not by contractors who, the union claims, pay minimum wages and provide no health benefits. Local 1877’s long-proven strategy has been to shame parent companies into paying contractors more money in exchange for the contractors’ permitting unionization. That’s why they were picketing the studios.
Janitors are not the only workers picketing this summer. Local 33 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) found itself unceremoniously locked out of the Inglewood Forum in April after 39 years there. The local unsuccessfully tried to dissuade Madonna from performing there in May and is now trying to talk Pearl Jam out of appearing there in July. Then there is Local 53 of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians/Communications Workers of America (NABET/CWA), whose members were all fired by the National Captioning Institute’s Burbank facility last January, after bitter contract-renewal talks. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is seeking to organize animation writers and reality-TV writers and editors, while the Screen Actors Guild is negotiating a commercials contract against an October deadline. Last Friday an alliance of entertainment-industry unions, called the Hollywood Coalition, met with the janitors and pledged a coordinated campaign over the next few months.
Like many labor wars in the age of outsourcing, the Hollywood union grievances are aimed not only against corporations but at the public. IATSE and NABET/CWA, like the janitors, know the benefit of public relations. Selling their positions won’t be easy, despite casts of sympathetic characters. Immigrants like those who make up most of Local 1877 are facing a national backlash, while the overwhelmingly white members of Local 33 tend to stick out in Inglewood as they picket the Sunday services of the overwhelmingly black Faithful Central Bible Church, which owns the Forum.
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The CityWalk rally was over after little more than an hour and included a speech by City Councilman Jose Huizar. (The day before, the council had unanimously passed a resolution egging on Hollywood to improve working conditions for the people who clean up after it.) It ended, following the march, where it had begun, at the Universal unisphere fountain. As a mister cooled people who stood near the fountain, the stainless-steel unisphere sculpture seemed to suggest not only the worldwide reach of Hollywood, but the globalization that has bedeviled America’s unions. It promises to be a long summer for labor.