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Hunger Strikes, Marches and More as Los Angeles Service Workers Make Their Presence Felt on May Day

L.A. janitors and airport workers have been building momentum for a possible strike for weeks -- and they have big plans for May Day.
 
 
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If you ask Mike Garcia, president of SEIU, United Service Workers West, he will tell you, “We have a jobs crisis, not a budget crisis. We have a crisis of the right-wing conscience.”

He gave this speech atop a stage at Pershing Square, in the financial hub of Los Angeles, the afternoon of tax day, April 17, 2012--a day when 2,000 janitors and workers took to the streets to let the large corporations know we would not stand for their corporate tax dodging. He went on, “The janitors are here ready to march for justice, not just for janitors, but for all workers in this country. They tell us there’s no money for healthcare in this economic recession, for wage increases, there’s no language to give us justice as immigrants in this country! We say no. We don’t believe it. There is not a scarcity of money, but there is a scarcity of justice.”

This was part of a build-up for a larger action: on May 1, International Worker’s Day, thousands of working people, their families and allies will gather from every corner of Los Angeles to tell these employers we mean business.

Los Angeles’ streets have been overcome with janitors, security workers, airport service workers, and other property service workers, and they are chanting “Strike! Strike! Strike! Huelga! Huelga! Huelga!” The janitors are sick and tired of cleaning up after the 1 percent. The Building Owners Managers Association (BOMA), happens to be made up of some of America’s biggest land barons. They are currently in negotiations with Los Angeles janitors, as it is time for them to renew their contracts. Yet some of the members of BOMA are threatening to cut back on their healthcare benefits. The janitors have let these building owners know they’re prepared to put up a fight. This slow rumble could progress to a startling halt in work if these large corporate employers don’t start to clean up their act.

It would have been announced on midnight, May 1, whether or not the janitors would go on strike. On April 25 they received the full support from the LA County Federation of Labor should they strike. JP Morgan called police to escort the bargaining committee from the Century Plaza Towers after they returned from a break from negotiations to join janitors in a rally through Century City.

The chant was that janitors are being treated like the garbage they throw out every night. Enough is enough!

If this sounds familiar it’s because it is. On April 3, 1990 there was an official strike of the Justice for Janitors campaign that went on for three weeks. The janitors in Los Angeles stayed on strike until April 22. By that time, they had reached a contract that guaranteed them at least a 22 percent raise over the next three years. The Los Angeles strike was significant to the future of Justice for Janitors, as it spurred a nationwide campaign involving over 100,000 SEIU janitors in 2000. The campaign sought to raise wages for all janitors as well as improve overall working conditions.

Justice at LAX

SEIU USWW also represents another class of workers, those who work at Los Angeles airport. However, the airport continues to hire these positions through a private firm that exposes workers to unsafe working conditions every day. Even when we’re mindful of worker’s rights we still may be guilty of forgetting about some of the jobs that exist and what their working conditions might be like. For example, recently I became apprised of the working conditions of a class of workers I rely on frequently but don’t often think about: airport cabin cleaners and cargo workers. GoodJobsLA conducted a survey of over 350 of these workers at LAX and here’s what they found:

  • Nearly 40% reported being injured on the job.

  • 45% have witnessed an accident involving another co-worker, passenger or other airport personnel -- close to half of those accidents resulted in hospitalization.

  • Almost 33% know of a former co-worker who suffered a permanently disabling injury on the job.

Here’s some stories of a couple of the people that were surveyed:

-Julio Echeverria, a ramp worker at LAX, slipped inside the cargo hold of a plane, slicing his leg on a metal piece of the cargo loader. Despite exposed knee bones, his manager refused to drive Echeverria to the clinic until the bleeding subsided so he would not “get blood all over the van.” Echeverria had surgery on his knee and was out of work for three months.

-Fernando Murillo, a ramp worker at LAX, donated a kidney to his wife, a procedure covered under a previous employer’s health plan. But now Murillo's health insurance only covers $50 dollars a month in prescriptions – not nearly enough for the monthly $633 in anti-rejection medication his wife requires. Murillo and his wife go to Tijuana for lab work and order prescriptions from Canada. The money they save is not enough to keep them from falling into credit card debt. Murillo's pay check comes well short of the $1,500 his family needs for rent every month. 

The list of irresponsible behavior of LAX contractors goes on. Of the people surveyed:

  • 20% witnessed an accident involving faulty or broken equipment.

  • 50% have to pay for the equipment they use at work including protective gear and cleaning supplies.

  • Workers report an average wage of $12.07 an hour.

  • Only 14% receive family health coverage.

  • 33% have no access to water on the job.

  • 14% have no access to bathrooms on the job.

On April 26, 2012 several airport workers went on a multi-day hunger-strike to protest working conditions at LAX. Each day, workers set up an encampment at the Tom Bradley International Departures Terminal, bringing visibility to their ongoing struggle. Workers plan to end their fast after the US Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, speaks at East Los Angeles City College. Each night, due to city regulations, workers took down their camp and slept at the nearby St. Jerome’s Church, maintaining both their fast and solidarity with one another.

Considering this is an internationally recognized airport it should be primed to invest in the community, yet much of the work conducted at the airport is contracted out to private firms. Airlines have placed us and workers on a downward spiral. Shouldn’t the airport be a place that works for everyone instead of a place where a cabin cleaner would have to work until 2688 to earn what Glen Tilton, the chairman of United Airlines, made in a single year? Airports are the key to our local economy.

All of these actions will culminate in a huge protest today, May 1, 2012. People from all over Los Angeles will march to Tom Bradley terminal in solidarity with the LAX workers. We will march in and around the terminals and demand a safe working environment with the people who risk their health working on the tarmacs and the people who clean the cabins, with people like Fernando Murillo and Julio Echeverria. These workers will protest beginning at 3am, as this is when it is most difficult for their jobs to be farmed out to other workers.

As Mike Garcia says, “There are two forms of power: money and people.” We know how to build people power. Ain’t no power like the power of the people, cause the power of the people don’t stop.

 

Melissa Chadburn's work has appeared or is upcoming in Guernica, PANK Magazine, WordRiot, Vol. 1 Brooklyn and elsewhere. Reach her at fictiongrrrl(at) gmail.com or follow her on twitter @melissachadburn.