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The Red Sea

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

I. Choose Your Miracle

There are any number of ways to gauge just how much the three-week strike of L.A.’s janitors has changed, and electrified, Los Angeles. We could begin with the cult that’s arisen around the janitors’ T-shirts, that sea of red that rolled through L.A.’s streets all this April. By the strike’s second week, the T-shirts had come to symbolize something so momentous — and so cool — that people were buying them off the janitors’ backs. By week three, knock-offs of the T-shirts started popping up in the garment district.

Or there’s the amazing transformation of local TV news, generally the purveyor of the most substance-free newscasts in all the land. In the past three weeks, however, TV news has been all over the janitors’ strike, not just covering the street heat but also pausing to mention the janitors’ wage rates. (Besides, every minute the stations devoted to the strike was a minute taken away from their Elian coverage. If the janitors had accomplished nothing more than that, they would deserve the thanks of a grateful city.)

Then there’s the civic betterment of civic leaders, some of whom worked steadily on the janitors’ behalf all this month. Speaker Emeritus Antonio Villaraigosa persuaded Eli Broad to recruit the mayor to the janitors’ cause. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was on the phone regularly with the building owners, persuading them to lean on the building contractors to settle with the strikers. One owner who didn’t need persuading was mega-developer Rob Maguire of Playa Vista fame, who repeatedly made the janitors’ case to the contractors and his fellow owners. This Monday, an immaculately tailored Maguire came to the janitors’ rally immediately following their vote to ratify the settlement, where he donned a janitors’ cap and autographed T-shirts for members, as their fellow janitors did a wild victory merengue dance and sprayed water on one another. There may have been stranger tableaus in recent L.A. history, but I can’t think of one.

Finally, simply, there’s this: The janitors won their strike. It may be hard to grasp just how astonishing this is until you try to tally up the number of local strikes by private-sector unions over the past dozen years that have ended in victory. It’s pretty slim pickings. In 1996, the Teamsters won a strike by tortilla-delivery-truck drivers at Guerrero Foods. In 1992, the dry-wallers won a strike against the home-building industry.

And that’s about it. Over the past quarter-century, the strike — once labor’s most potent weapon — has all but vanished from the unions’ playbook, for the simple reason that labor kept coming out on the losing side. With both membership and élan in a decades-long slide, and management power steadily increasing, strikes were out of the question. “We didn’t take people out very often,” says Bill Robertson, who headed the L.A. County Federation of Labor from 1975 until 1993. “We didn’t have the troops.”

The janitors did have the troops, and — to their considerable surprise — they unleashed a torrent of public support. Clearly, they touched a nerve that no one else had previously been able to locate quite so precisely. The striking UPS drivers won public backing in 1997, but it was nothing like the love fest of the past three weeks. The Hotel and Restaurant workers who won new contracts from L.A. hotels in 1998 had the steady, very visible support of the local clergy — but while they undertook all kinds of actions, they thought it prudent not to take things as far as a strike.

At first glance, the janitors might seem the least likely union to wage, and win, a strike. Their wages are too low to give them any cushion when they go out. Their work sites are too numerous and dispersed to enable the union to concentrate members effectively at more than a few locations. The diffusion of work sites should make it difficult for the workers to bond together as an effective force. The structure of the industry — with 18 maintenance companies negotiating up-front, while a like number of building owners negotiate behind the scenes — can mean that the least wealthy, or most stingy, contractor can gum up a settlement.

By any of these measures, a strike might seem totally nuts. And yet, the members of Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — all of them poor, all but a handful of them immigrants (like the dry-wallers and the Guerrero drivers), most of them women — went out. And prevailed.

 

II. War on the Streets!

At 1877, the union’s leaders had spent half a decade preparing the members for just such an action. Over the past five years, members have learned how to run meetings and provide services to their fellow members; they’ve mastered the arcane structure of their industry. The week before the strike vote, says Triana Silton, the remarkable staffer who coordinated the entire campaign, the union convened its stewards’ council — the 100 key local activists — and said, “If we go out, you folks will have to run this strike.” Which, the stewards pledged, they would.

 

Still, any field commander about to go into battle has to feel a little nervous, no matter how ready the troops. About a week before the strike vote, Silton called Jono ä Shaffer, who’d preceded her as the local Justice for Janitors coordinator. “She just wanted reassurance that we weren’t about to embark on a countywide strike with 25 activists to cover the whole city,” Shaffer says. “I told her what she knew, but wanted to hear anyway — we’d have a thousand.” And so they did.

They had to have a thousand, because this strike was waged at night as well as by day. In the sunlight, as the newscast helicopters hovered above them, they marched all over town. At sunset, the real work of the strike began, as they dispersed to the myriad of office buildings around L.A. “With so many buildings out,” says Shaffer, “you couldn’t possibly have staff at more than a handful. In most places, the members ran the strike and the picket lines and the scab patrols. The main change in this local over the past five years is the level of leadership the members have assumed, and the ownership they’ve asserted. In the past three weeks, we saw what that meant.”

In the end, the union pulled maybe half its 8,500 members onto the streets, in an effort to shut down the clean up of the office buildings in downtown, the Westside and the pricier parts of the Valley. To drive around L.A. by night over the past month was to see pickets clustered in the dark in Glendale and Santa Monica and along Ventura Boulevard, on sentry duty against strikebreakers — after they’d spent a day parading. The net they threw up had plenty of holes in it, but the clean-up in many of L.A.’s most prominent office buildings was rendered sporadic and haphazard during the course of the strike.

For the owners of those buildings, the logic of settling grew more compelling with each passing day. As Maguire saw it, this was from the start a matter of dollars and sense. “This is a very productive work force and union. We support it,” he told me as the janitors danced around him. By late last week, he said, “Virtually all the major owners were 100 percent for a settlement.” A number of the maintenance contractors, however, were still balking: “On Thursday, we said, ‘Enough is enough!’ We said it had to be finished by Monday, and that we were prepared to enter into a separate agreement if it didn’t get done.”

On the management side of the table, finally, size mattered. Many of the major property owners, such as Equity of Chicago, own buildings all across the country, and the largest maintenance contractors, such as American Building Maintenance and OneSource, are nationwide as well. The SEIU has relationships with these companies in virtually every major U.S. city outside the South, with contracts up for renegotiation this spring in almost all these cities. An impasse in one city could easily bollix the works in the next. In the end, the big guys prevailed upon the small to reach a settlement.

Among the big guys, moreover, the institutional memory of just how disruptive the janitors could become had never really faded. Over the past 15 years, SEIU’s janitors had blocked streets and bridges, and all but closed off the downtowns of a number of cities. By last Friday, when the contractors were balking at the janitors’ demand for one more nickel and instead issued their own threat to hire permanent replacement workers if the union didn’t cave by Monday, the local labor establishment was prophesying war. “We take [the contractors’] threat as a declaration of war against the entire Los Angeles labor movement,” County Fed chief Miguel Contreras told strikers at a Friday-afternoon rally. The day before, over 70 unions had pledged $118,000 to the janitors and had promised to take to the streets. “On Tuesday, thousands of union members will join the janitors to completely shut down the ARCO Towers,” Contreras vowed. “Our message to the contractors is this: If you replace one single worker on Monday, there will be war on the streets of L.A.!”

As he spoke, Contreras knew that a settlement over the weekend was likely. Even so, his threat was credible — and the sort of thing that no head of a Central Labor Council of a major American city had delivered in probably half a century. It had been more than half a century, though, since L.A. labor had been so galvanized by a strike.

 

If the settlement hadn’t been agreed to on Saturday night, the janitors had planned a quantum leap in civic disruption for Sunday afternoon. A thousand or so members were to gather at their headquarters at noon and walk the few short blocks to Staples Center, which they’d parade around at just about the time that thousands of fans were showing up for the Lakers’ first NBA playoff game. Angelenos don’t fully appreciate what exactly they were spared by the contractors’ agreeing to that last nickel.

 

III. On The Nickel

That last nickel was particularly important to the union because it removed from the settlement the stigma of a two-tier deal. The problem confronting the union is that its members work at two different wage rates — close to $8 an hour in downtown and Century City (where unionization dates from around 1990, and where the rate of unionization is about 90 percent); and close to $7 an hour everywhere else in the county (where unionization dates from around five years ago or even more recently, and where the unionization rate is about 70 percent). This is not that unusual a pattern: In Chicago, for instance, janitors downtown have a much higher wage scale than janitors in the newer suburbs and edge cities, where unionization is far more recent.

On last Friday, then, the contractors proposed an hourly raise of 70 cents in the first year of the contract for janitors downtown and in Century City (called Area 1), and 60 cents in each of the two following years of the three-year contract. For all the other janitors, in Area 2, they proposed a first-year hourly raise of 25 cents, followed by 60-cent raises in each of the two subsequent years. The first-year raise for Area 2 was woefully meager, but it looked worse than it actually was. Just this January, Area 2 janitors had received fully paid family health insurance and a 40-cent raise, in accordance with the terms of their 1995 contract. (Area 1 janitors had received this years earlier.) The contractors argued that following that increase with another major one next month was more than they could afford. For its part, the union didn’t have the leverage to push them much further, but it wanted a 30-cent increase — so that, when added to January’s 40 cents, the total for the year came to 70 cents, the same figure Area 1 janitors received. Management was holding out for 25. Thus, the final conflict in the janitors’ strike.

(According to one source close to the negotiations, the contractors hadn’t really set aside the funds to start up the health insurance in January, because, when they agreed to it in 1995, they assumed that national health care would have been enacted by this January. Since the Gingrich Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, it’s hard to fathom just what the contractors were thinking.)

In negotiations Saturday night, the union finally got its nickel. With that, the total raise for Area 2 employees amounted to a 26.5 percent increase over the three years, and for Area 1 employees, a 25.5 percent increase. Nonetheless, when the contract was explained to members at Monday’s meeting, it was met with a barrage of questions — indignant questions: Why hadn’t the Area 2 wage come up to the level of Area 1’s? Why did the Area 2 wage kick in a full five months later than Area 1’s?

One question that wasn’t asked but hung over the proceedings was this: We told the world we were striking for a dollar-an-hour raise. What happened to that?

In fact, said one source close to the union, “The local said ‘a dollar an hour’ with no intent of engraving it in stone. Then the cardinal and the mayor picked it up, and it resonated with the public. But we’d never planned to make it a non-negotiable demand.”

Between desire and reality fell the shadow. “The members have a clear understanding they deserve a dollar-an-hour increase,” says Triana Silton. “But they also understand that a 26 percent increase over three years is substantial.”

At least one union staffer, listening to the onslaught of critical questions at Monday’s meeting, said he feared the contract wouldn’t be ratified. But each question was answered by one or another janitor who’d sat on the negotiating committee, and committee members from both Area 1 and Area 2 told the members what they’d won and where they’d been unable to push the contractors any further. They went over the particulars again and again, until, all solicitude spent, one of the negotiators — the gravel-voiced Rosa Ayala — told them, “If you understand this, fine. If, after all this, you don’t, it’s your own goddamn problem!” With that, the janitors voted — and, by a margin of 1,747 to 91, accepted the settlement.

 

Local president Mike Garcia, who’s worked on SEIU’s Justice for Janitors ä campaign since it began in the mid-’80s, had also provided the answers to many of the members’ questions. Now he stepped to the mike and told them, “You may be returning to work as janitors, but you will never live in the dark again!” Amid the cheers, Garcia continued. “You can go back to work tonight,” he said — and the member standing next to me, a middle-aged woman, softly and sadly moaned, “Oh.” “Or tomorrow,” Garcia added, as the crowd cheered and the woman smiled.

 

Iv. brave new world, sort OF

Janitorial work remains janitorial work, no matter what the union does, but Local 1877’s victory has managed to alter a number of features in the local landscape. The union is now freed up to concentrate on organizing the quarter of the L.A. work force that’s not unionized, and the workers in Orange County’s high-rises, which are entirely non-union. The L.A. labor movement hopes to translate the goodwill that the janitors have won into public support for the nearly 300,000 other local union members whose contracts come up later this year — a tricky task, since the janitors’ hold on the moral high ground cannot automatically be transferred to other workers.

As Garcia told me after the meeting, the meaning of the strike for the Latino community, in L.A. and beyond, was profound. Some of the loudest cheers at the meeting came when Garcia vowed that the union’s next fight (after it wins new contracts in San Diego and the Silicon Valley; 1877 is a statewide local) would be for a new amnesty for undocumented residents. With considerable support from local clergy, the County Fed has scheduled a mass meeting for June to build support for the proposal. (Which poses an exquisite dilemma for the Republicans: Do they oppose the proposal and risk further alienating California’s fastest-growing voting bloc, or do they support it and risk having hundreds of thousands of new voters — the vast majority of them Democratic — come to the polls?)

The strike has also confirmed a new order in the political firmament of Latino California. The janitors, in tandem with Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, have supplanted the United Farm Workers as the political powerhouse and moral beacon of local Latino politics. It was the UFW’s legendary Dolores Huerta who coined the slogan “Si, se puede” (“Yes, we can do it”) for a union of immigrants who’d come to rural California. Today, the slogan has been picked up by the unions representing, at least in spirit, the millions of immigrants who’ve since settled in urban California; and it is these unions whose members have shown, in fact, that they can do it — win good contracts and amass political clout. Twenty-five years ago, the Farm Workers and their allies walked more precincts in Latino L.A. than anyone else. Today, the members of locals 1877 and 11 — the janitors and hotel workers — walk more precincts than anyone else, have amassed more political support than anyone else, and have caught the imagination and won the allegiance of a new generation of immigrants.

The full meaning of the janitors’ strike — the extent to which it will galvanize L.A.’s immigrant poor, or prod unions to develop new organizing campaigns, or build support for other union efforts or living-wage legislation — is impossible to predict. Clearly, this isn’t Detroit in the spring of 1937, where the victory of the sit-down strikers over General Motors prompted a rash of spontaneous sit-downs in factories, offices, hotels, restaurants, stores and automats all across town. Forming a union is in every way more difficult now than it was then.

But by the standards of L.A. in the year 2000, when they’re making knockoffs of your T-shirts, you’ve arrived.

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