The world has changed so much since the spring of 2000 that it’s hard to remember how little time has passed since janitors fighting for dignity and a living wage brought traffic to a halt at the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood. Clueless motorists discovered they had driven into a three-hour-long stoplight, then saw the protesters in their red “Justice for Janitors” T-shirts and started honking — here’s the remarkable thing — in approval. Some left their Audis and SUVs to get a glimpse of the janitors and pleaded to be thrown one of the now-famous shirts that had come to symbolize the Easter season strike.
It was like that all over town. When the janitors demonstrated, office workers often thought less about their own inconvenience than about the fact that they were witnessing history. To catch a glimpse of a march was to view a holy procession. Actually snagging one of those red shirts was like touching a sacred relic.
For at least a brief time in Los Angeles there was respect for janitors and contempt for their adversaries — the companies who contracted out the nighttime cleaning of Century City and downtown high-rises and paid poverty wages to the mostly immigrant workers. If you were a public figure, you had to get on board with this strike. Members of the Legislature flew down from Sacramento so they could get arrested. Cardinal Roger Mahony held special masses for the strikers. Developer–building owner Rob Maguire put pressure on his wealthy real estate friends. So did Mayor Richard Riordan. And in one of the strike’s most memorable images, Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa stood, holding a broom, side-by-side with county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, clutching a mop, in a gesture of solidarity with the people filling the bottom-rung jobs in the new service economy.
The janitors won their fight by capturing, and holding, the public imagination. Labor had been reinvented, and all workers who went out on strike in the future expected to benefit from the janitors’ victory.
So how come there is no widespread public outpouring for striking Metropolitan Transportation Authority mechanics? After all, these people keep the buses moving, and it is the buses that take those janitors to work after sundown and home again well after 2 or 3 a.m. The buses serve the garment workers and the housecleaners, as well as the clerical staffs that keep the law offices and accounting firms operating in those gleaming business towers. Where are the building managers complaining to the MTA that their janitors are not showing up for work, and the office managers putting pressure on elected officials to get their bus-riding receptionists and data-entry clerks to the office by 8:30 a.m.?
It turns out there are a lot of reasons the MTA strike isn’t capturing the public imagination, and some of them are obvious, like the economy. It is one thing to revel in the nation’s greatest economic expansion of all time and hear janitors call for a puny dollar-an-hour raise (although the strike finally settled for 70 cents). It is something else entirely, in the public mind, to support union demands for what may look on its face like a decent wage and medical package at a time when the economy is in the tank, jobs are scarce, the state is near fiscal collapse, U.S. troops are under attack, and the future looks grim.
And mechanics, as highly skilled workers, just don’t come across as sympathetic as janitors. It’s easy to forget that their $50,000 a year doesn’t buy much anymore in the way of housing. They organized, fought their way into the middle class, and arrived — but just barely. Now they’re trying to hang on.
Then there is also the reality of the public-transit-dependent working poor. The people who employ bottom-rung workers can always replace them with little trouble if they fail to show up for work. Office employees several rungs up scramble for carpools or any other way to get to work. “Frankly,” the office manager at one of downtown’s largest law firms said Tuesday, “we haven’t noticed any drop-off [in timely attendance] due to the strike. I haven’t really asked, but everyone seems to be able to find a way to get to work.” Manuel Criollo of the Bus Riders Union said people who take the bus are used to finding alternatives in a pinch.
The different circumstances of a public-sector strike also come into play. Zev Yaroslavsky, instead of holding a wrench in solidarity with strikers, is trading angry potshots with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1277 leader Neil Silver. Antonio Villaraigosa, now on the City Council, and every other MTA board member sufficiently aligned with the union to accept its political donations are barred by state law from participating in bargaining and settlement talks. That leaves settlement decisions in the hands of MTA leaders like the mayor of Lancaster.
The support network of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and statewide labor groups is there for the mechanics — but not like it was for the janitors. It couldn’t be. Labor was spread thin trying to defend Gray Davis, and had invested its organizational capital in the recent nationwide “Freedom Ride” for immigrant workers and the coming presidential election.
But the biggest difference, by far, is in planning. The janitors’ Service Employees International Union Local 1877 didn’t just luck into public respect. They worked for it, unseen, for a decade, and had the capstone of their effort — the three-week strike — so carefully choreographed that in the end it seemed there was no way they could lose. Their campaign had the pacing of a carefully crafted feel-good movie. They had identified and cultivated leaders, plotted strategies on maps and databases, picked just the right time — Easter, with the Democratic National Convention looming — to appeal to the public conscience. They had their elected officials trained. They even picked out a color scheme.
MTA drivers went out on strike that same year — but couldn’t deliver their message to the public and came back with almost nothing. Now, with grocery workers also striking over threatened cuts to their health benefits, MTA workers have been handed a golden opportunity to organize a consistent and coherent message. The residue of public good will is there, evident in empty parking lots at supermarkets and the occasional honk from a passing motorist. But there has been no coordinated campaign among MTA and grocery workers. No citywide maps of alternative stores for buying groceries, no appeals to bus riders or the taxpayers to stand up for employer-paid health care. No theater, just theatrics. Just Neil Silver. And Zev Yaroslavsky.
The janitors quietly sewed up a new five-year contract earlier this year. The same union is planning a December 10 march in its campaign to organize security officers who work in office towers. It’s a good bet that it will be a march worth watching. The mechanics and the MTA, meanwhile, may still be deadlocked.