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What the Janitors Taught Los Angeles

Photo by Leor Levine

The janitors’ strike in the spring of 2000 may have blindsided Los Angeles, but once it began, Angelenos understood it soon enough. A Dickensian morality play was unfolding on the city’s streets, and choosing to side with the janitors — a thought that had crossed hardly anyone’s mind until the strike began — turned out, for many, to be almost instinctual.

How else to account for the extraordinary tableaux that developed during the janitors’ many marches across town during their three-week-long strike? Snaking through the residential streets of Westwood and being greeted with whoops of support from their fellow immigrant workers — nannies coming out of houses, roofers hammering on housetops — was no surprise. But blocking some of the city’s busiest intersections on Wilshire Boulevard, delaying motorists by up to 20 minutes, and having those motorists get out of their cars and cheer them on? Parading through Beverly Hills and having passing shoppers dart out into the street and hand them money? In all the novels, stories, films and TV shows set in L.A., no one had ever imagined scenes like these.

Clearly, the janitors touched something both hidden and deep in the L.A. psyche at the millennium. I suspect that by striking the way they did — confronting the public with a moral choice — they provided a city that had lost its sense of its own story with a narrative line, and a city beset by a seemingly insoluble problem with a solution.

For, over the better part of the preceding two decades, L.A. had changed in ways that had made it almost unrecognizable. The most white Protestant major American city as late as the census of 1960 had become, in the census of 2000, the least white (29.7 percent) of the eight largest American cities. Moreover, during the ’80s and ’90s, the middle had fallen out of the L.A. economy with the collapse of aerospace and other durable-goods manufacturing. The new Latino immigrant population, which constituted nearly half of both the city and the county, was working for poverty-level wages. One 1996 state Assembly survey found that 40 percent of the households in L.A. County had an annual income under $20,000. A brave new Los Angeles had arisen, at once poor and employed, and nobody knew what to do about it.

Until the janitors. By organizing a textbook-perfect strike, they showed the city that collective action could provide real change. In the end, they won a 26 percent raise over three years, and employer-provided family health coverage. They provided a plausible path for rebuilding a middle class in a city that had been the embodiment of the middle-class American dream in the decades following World War II.

What’s more, the strike was just one part of a broader offensive, organized by the L.A. County Federation of Labor, to create a local labor-Latino-liberal alliance that would amass the political as well as the bargaining power to create a city and a state that offered more equality, more opportunity. The janitors’ union had been part of that program, too; in the voter-mobilization efforts of the County Fed at election time, it was always the janitors who walked the most precincts, made the most phone calls. In their bargaining sessions, it was no accident that they had state legislators and City Council members sitting with them on their side of the table. And just as their contract was one manifestation of their success, so are a number of new laws in California, such as the creation of paid family and medical leave, and the new mandate for employer-provided health insurance.

None of this came easy. During the strike, thousands of janitors walked nighttime picket lines around hundreds of far-flung office buildings, then marched downtown’s streets in daytime. Building a union able to do that required years of education and training. Building a union able to generate such high levels of political and public support required a decade of dedication to community, political and media organizing that most unions can barely even contemplate. The janitors were up to every one of these tasks, which is just one reason why their strike was a joy to cover and support. (The Weekly published a list of food banks for the strikers, and ran one of our own in our building lobby, for the duration of the strike.)

By no means did every Angeleno embrace the vision of a multiracial metropolis, replete with labor struggles to rebuild a middle class, that the janitors put before us. The drive for Valley secession was another, and opposite, response to the transformation of Los Angeles in recent decades. But the janitors pointed the way to the best plausible future for Los Angeles, touching, as they paraded among us, those characteristically repressed better angels of our nature.


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