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Street vs. Suite

Why L.A.‘s janitors will win their strike

At first glance, the struggle between L.A.’s janitors, who embarked on a countywide strike this week, and L.A.‘s highrise owners may seem ludicrously one-sided. The men who own the glass-and-steel towers along the Figueroa corridor, in Century City, at the Warner Center etc. (or who own the investment trusts that own those buildings) loom over the local political landscape much as their properties do the physical landscape. Richard Ziman, who as CEO of Arden Realty owns more class-A office properties than anyone else in town, has played host to President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Governor Davis and other pols equally appreciative of his megabucks fund-raising. Rob Maguire has had the money and the moxie to overcome all manner of opposition in his quest to build Playa Vista.

The very idea that Ziman, Maguire and their counterparts may have to meet the demands of Blanca Buendia -- who has mopped the floors and vacuumed the carpets at the Gas Company’s downtown headquarters since she arrived here nine years ago from El Salvador, and who gets $7.80 an hour for her efforts -- sounds too preposterous even to contemplate. But humor me a moment. Because when this strike is done, I think Buendia and her co-workers will have prevailed. And changed Los Angeles in the process.

It‘s not that Buendia and her husband, Mauricio, who also works at the Gas Company at the $7.80 hourly rate, have set aside the money to tide them through a strike. Once they pay the rent on their Westlake-area apartment and for the sitter who watches their 4- and 2-year-olds, there’s not much left for a rainy-day fund. Despite that -- and despite the fact that she‘s eight months pregnant, with her health insurance suspended for the duration of the strike -- Blanca Buendia was one of the roughly 50 janitors who formed a picket line in front of the Gas Company late Monday afternoon.

The Gas Company was the first building that Buendia’s union had targeted for their strike; by the end of Monday night, the janitors had struck virtually every downtown highrise. On Tuesday night, they walked on the Westside; by week‘s end, the majority of L.A.’s premier office properties, from Long Beach to Pasadena, will have lost their regular cleaning forces. Currently paid between $6.80 and $7.80 an hour, the janitors are asking for an hourly raise of $1 in each of the proposed new contract‘s three years.

As a percentage of their current income, that’s a big jump. Then again, their current income is the lowest for a janitorial work force in any city outside the anti-union South. But no other city experienced the huge influx of destitute immigrants that swept over L.A. in the mid-‘80s, and no other city had a building-maintenance industry that fired almost all its existing workforce (chiefly unionized African-Americans) to hire immigrants, many of them undocumented, for less than half of what management had been paying their predecessors.

“The last contract the union negotiated before the bottom fell out was in ’82 or ‘83,” recalls Jono Schaffer, at that time an organizer of the Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign, and who now heads up the AFL-CIO‘s unionization campaign at LAX. “Almost immediately after the ink was dry on the signatures, we had to go into renegotiations, dropping the wages just to keep our members in the building. We bottomed out in ’86, when we had just 1,500 members countywide.” The vast majority of L.A.‘s new janitors worked non-union at minimum wage -- then $3.35 an hour, just 44 percent of the $7.32 the union had negotiated a few years before.

No other American city had experienced such wholesale substitution of workforces and simultaneous shift to non-union contractors. No other city saw wage rates plummet. In San Francisco, janitors make between $12 and $14 an hour today; in New York, between $15 and $17.

Today, Buendia’s union -- SEIU local 1877, a statewide janitor‘s union with 8,500 members in L.A. County -- is still composed almost entirely of Latino immigrants. Local 1877 president Mike Garcia estimates the membership at between 98 and 99 percent immigrant, 55 percent of it female. Monday’s strike-authorization rally -- an angry and exuberant gathering of 3,000 members, many of them with infants and toddlers in tow -- was conducted primarily in Spanish. (The union provided a translator for non-Spanish-speaking members; but when last I looked, she was translating for no more than half-a-dozen members.)

Building the janitors‘ local back up to 8,500 members has taken a grueling 14 years. “In a sense, the local began on the Olympic Boulevard bus from Century City to Pico Union -- the 2:30 a.m. bus,” recalls Schaffer. “It was the janitors’ private bus: There sure wasn‘t anyone else on it, and it was the one place where they could talk freely about their jobs.”

 

The sole power of the poor is the power to disrupt. And disrupt they did -- reinventing the street theater and processions of Mexico and Central America for an urban setting, banging drums, parading through the streets. In 1990, the friendly folks at the LAPD, having failed to get the word that a janitors’ march in Century City had been authorized, staged one of their periodic police riots, beating and injuring scores of entirely peaceful janitors. The beating was filmed, and proved terribly embarrassing for Century City property owners. With that, the newly reborn janitors union got its first contract.

Blanca Buendia and her coworkers still can take it to the streets like nobody else in town, but they also bring six distinct assets to this battle, which I believe will enable them to prevail over the building owners and maintenance companies. These are, first, the strength of their own local, which is one of the most militant and strategically savvy on the L.A. scene; second, their international, which is probably the most innovative and strategically savvy of U.S. unions; third, the L.A. labor movement, which is certainly the best coordinated and most strategically savvy of labor councils in the U.S.; fourth, the support of political and clerical leaders; fifth, the booming state of the economy (for everyone but them). Finally, they so firmly hold the moral high ground that winning public support should be one of their easier tasks.

Under the leadership of Mike Garcia, Local 1877 has emerged as one of the most active and dynamic in the nation -- and one of the most unlikely political players on the L.A. scene. In the wake of the janitors‘ victory in Century City, the new immigrants began to flood into one of SEIU’s more established -- and by SEIU standards, more sedentary -- locals. A clash of strategies, visions and cultures soon developed; at the janitors‘ behest, the international union intervened and established a distinct janitorial union.

The members of Local 1877 don’t own homes, and for the most part don‘t own cars. The one thing they do own is 1877. Members commit more time to their union than in any other I know of. (Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees runs a close second.) Anyone who’s seen labor demonstrations in L.A. knows that 1877 will turn out the most members. And Local 1877 is key to the conversion of the County Fed from a somnolent central labor council to the most potent force in L.A. politics. “We supported Miguel [Contreras, the leader of the County Fed since early ‘96] from Day One,” says Garcia. “We worked with Miguel and Fabian [Nunez, the Fed’s political director], and with them, we coordinated the Latino political mobilization.”

That mobilization has been so well coordinated that the Fed has won 16 of 17 targeted races since Contreras took the helm. “Our operation focuses on members and on Latino new-immigrant voters,” says Contreras, “and for this, the janitors are critical. Their members are willing to work their shift until 4 a.m., then show up for a precinct walk at 7 a.m.”

“In the election of November ‘98,” says Garcia, “we turned out for 1,500 shifts.” A “shift” can mean either walking a precinct or working a phone bank for an afternoon or evening. “In the elections this March, we were somewhat distracted by the impending strike,” Garcia says, almost apologetically. “We managed only 200 shifts -- but that still made us the most active local union in L.A. County.”

Now the political community is weighing in on behalf of the janitors. As of Monday, 48 local elected officials from across the county had signed a statement of support for the janitors. State Senator Richard Alarcon and Assembly Members Gloria Romero and Scott Wildman showed up for the final pre-strike bargaining session that 1877 had with the representatives of management, to make crystal clear just how important the janitors’ cause was to them. Last week, the L.A. City Council voted 13 to 0 to support the janitors. This Monday, the janitors‘ strike rally was addressed by Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (who said, “Your demands are basic demands -- five days of sick leave for the people who work in the dirtiest jobs in town”) and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (who said, “I hope there’s not a building owner in Los Angeles who plans to expand his profits on the backs of the people who clean his toilets”). On Tuesday, Yaroslavsky successfully prodded the county Board of Supervisors to back the janitors, too.

 

But the janitors would never have been able to call in these political debts had the County Fed not established the political program in which they‘ve played so crucial a role. This year ---- with contracts expiring for more than 250,000 workers who belong to the member unions of the Fed -- Contreras’ extraordinary labor council has initiated a bargaining-support campaign every bit as groundbreaking as its electoral efforts. The Fed is helping the 20 unions whose contracts are up to develop their message and their strategic plans. For striking janitors, it has established a food bank that, Contreras pledges, will provide a weekly shopping bag of food to every member for the duration of the strike. And it has encouraged unions to come to the active assistance of the locals that do decide to strike.

On Tuesday morning, the janitors saw the first concrete expression of that assistance. Teamsters Local 396, which represents the trash haulers and UPS drivers throughout much of L.A., refused to make parcel deliveries or pick up the trash at any building the janitors had struck. “UPS put their supervisors on their vehicles,” said Danny Bruno, who was elected leader of the Teamsters‘ local just this January, “but as the strike spreads, they’re going to run out of supervisors.

”This is the first time I know of that the Teamsters have backed up non-Teamsters locally,“ Bruno told me. ”Wherever there‘s a picket line, our members will not cross.“

Bruno’s pledge is echoed by janitors locals across the country. Since Steven Lerner and a rag-tag crew of organizers initiated the Justice for Janitors campaign in the mid-‘80s, the number of janitors in the SEIU has grown to 200,000 across the nation. Lerner holds a black belt in street confrontation -- his masterpiece was a sit-down that tied up one of the bridges across the Potomac during the decade-long battle that led to the unionization of Washington’s janitors -- but he‘s also one canny strategist. The SEIU has timed its janitorial contracts so that most of them expire this year, within a few months, beginning in L.A. Locals from around the country have sent members to sit in on negotiations here --part of a campaign by the international to invest the janitors of Chicago, say, in the struggle of the janitors of L.A.

If SEIU has a national strategy, it’s because building management -- and building ownership -- are national industries. Companies such as American Building Management (ABM) and One-Source employ tens of thousands of janitors across the U.S.; they‘re also the leading contractors here in L.A. Real estate magnates like Chicago’s Sam Zell own highrises all across the U.S. By coordinating the expiration dates of their contracts, the janitors can plausibly threaten to wage a nationwide strike. More immediately, they can stage sympathy shut-downs with 1877. ”Starting this Thursday,“ says 1877‘s Garcia, ”our members will go to other cities. There are 15,000 members of the New York janitors local who work for ABM -- 1,500 work at the World Trade Center alone. If one of our members shows up outside with a sign -- ’Local 1877 On Strike Against ABM‘ -- none of those 1,500 will cross the line.“ In fact, SEIU has planned these kinds of walk-outs all across the country.

Finally, it defies all credulity for management to argue that it can’t afford the raises. Occupancy rates in L.A. have been rising steadily for half a decade. Rental rates in class-A office buildings across L.A. County have increased from an average of $1.51 per square foot in 1995 to $1.79 today -- an 18.5 percent increase in the last four years. Local 1877 calculates that the total cost to tenants of their proposed wage increase would come out to about one-third of a cent for every rental dollar that tenants currently pay. The best argument that building contractor spokesperson Dick Davis could muster on Monday was: ”While some building owners are very rich, others aren‘t.“ I suppose this distinction rests on one’s definition of ”very rich,“ since it‘s hard to believe there are class-A properties around L.A. that anyone other than a multimillionaire could own.

What’s not in dispute is that the janitors are very poor. A janitor working a full shift year-round at the current union rate won‘t make the $16,700 that the federal government sets as the poverty level for a family of four. (The 30 percent of the local janitorial work force that’s non-union staggers along at about $12,000 per year, according to 1877‘s estimates.) What’s more, the janitors are just emblematic of the whole of the Other Los Angeles -- America‘s capital of low-wage work, where the poverty rate rose from 13 percent in 1980 to 15 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 1998. Today, the janitors are just about the only people in L.A. who have a plausible plan not just to cap, but actually reduce, the number of Angelenos who live in poverty. They have the vision, and, remarkably, they’ve amassed the power. Which is why, in the matter of Blanca Buendia et. al. vs. Richard Ziman et. al., my money‘s on Buendia. #

 

Staff writer Joseph Treviño contributed to this story.


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