Janitors for Justice?

On Pennsylvania Ave., across the street from the offices of one of Washington's biggest landlords, dozens of helmeted police officers, their clubs drawn, corralled 200 peaceful, chanting demonstrators. A heavy plate-glass door shattered as the police chased a woman into it. Another demonstrator twisted and writhed as six officers dragged him toward a fleet of paddy wagons parked nearby. Middle-aged men in suits and women in dresses looked around uneasily as the police carried off one demonstrator after another, many still brandishing signs and chanting slogans. Well-compensated bureaucrats and office workers from labor's conservative center, the AFL-CIO headquarters a few blocks away, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their counterparts on labor's most militant wing: janitors from El Salvador and Pittsburgh, union organizers from Guatemala and Milwaukee. What brought these unlikely comrades together in mid-March for a five- hour ordeal of handcuffs and jail time? The march and the rush-hour sit-down action were the work of "Justice for Janitors," an innovative organizing campaign of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The protest, part of an eight-year campaign to organize Washington's janitors, targeted prominent building owner Oliver Carr, who has been reaping multimillion-dollar tax breaks in the midst of the District of Columbia's budget crisis. Carr also hires non-union cleaning contractors, who in turn employ hundreds of the city' s poorest residents to do dirty, difficult work at minimum wages with part-time hours and no benefits. As the city wrestled with its fiscal crisis, the janitors' union staged a week-long mobilization, during which it tested new direct-action strategies and schooled 200 organizers in Justice for Janitors' in-your-face tactics. Co-sponsors included the Hotel & Restaurant Employees union (HERE) and the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute. The sponsors hope the week's activities will set an example that the AFL-CIO and other mainstream unions cannot ignore. The missionary zeal of the Justice for Janitors organizers is understandable: Founded a decade ago, it is now the most successful organizing campaign among service industry workers in the private sector. And, remarkably, it has succeeded among a workforce that other unions have failed to reach--part-time, low-income workers, predominantly African-Americans and Spanish-speaking immigrants, who hold jobs at the bottom of the U.S. economy. As organized labor continues its seemingly inexorable slide into irrelevance, the "J for J" model--which has won new contracts and registered impressive membership gains--looks increasingly attractive. Like many other private sector workers whose unions have declined, janitors once enjoyed strong organization. During the ' 40s, the SEIU's building services division claimed a strong hold on most major cities. But by the late '70s, membership was on the skids. Ranks thinned as building owners contracted janitorial work out to low-bidding non-union maintenance firms, who hired immigrants and African-Americans at rock-bottom wages. But while the industrial workforce shrank, the number of janitors was surging: 3 million janitors were employed in the United States by the early '90s--more than all the country's autoworkers and steelworkers combined. In 1985, alarmed by the decline in wages and working conditions, the SEIU began to fight back. When building owners in Pittsburgh demanded that workers take a pay cut, the International supported the local in an aggressive, community-wide campaign that eventually proved victorious. That year, with new Organizing Director Andy Stern and a new director of organizing for the Building Services Division, Stephen Lerner, the SEIU adopted a rebuilding program and launched a campaign to organize janitors in Denver. The union refined the militant tactics it had used in Pittsburgh. By the end of the drive, the SEIU had organized a majority of Denver's janitors. "Justice for Janitors," the slogan of the Denver struggle, became a full-fledged national campaign. Justice for Janitors uses strategies--like the sit-down strike--made famous during labor' s golden age in the '30s, and combines them with the nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement. J for J molds them into a simple formula: The disruption of business as usual, plus moral authority, equals change. But this approach often runs into legal obstacles. For example, the time-honored tactic of warehouse workers refusing to handle the goods of a company whose employees were on strike, has--like many other successful union strategies--been outlawed by Congress, the courts and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). So, J for J has been forced to be creative. The campaign rejects the standard organizing method most unions now use: site-by-site NLRB-supervised elections. Lerner, who now works with the Organizing Institute and other labor groups, says, "The boss was right--our strategy was stupid: 'Join the union, lose your job.' " Indeed, one in four companies facing an organizing drive unlawfully fires employees. Even when unions win NLRB elections--and they win only 50 percent--employers often avoid negotiating first contracts. Justice for Janitors organizers liken the NLRB to a black hole that sucks in the union's time, stalls momentum and eventually bores workers to death. Worse, they claim, many members feel that the often lengthy proceedings that accompany an NLRB election only underscore the union' s weakness. Consequently, when Justice for Janitors organizes a workplace, it insists the company agrees to simultaneously recognize the union and negotiate a contract. Other unions prefer the NLRB strategy because it's more predictable: set an election and win or lose on that date. But J for J organizers dig in for the long haul, with a high-profile, multifaceted pressure campaign. Their tactics include street theater, quickie unfair labor-practice strikes (which even nonunion employees are allowed to hold), corporate campaigns, regulatory challenges, community coalitions, boycotts and disruption of production through direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience. The latter strategy is key: The union's principal tactic is to "physically interfere with the ability of companies to operate, produce and deliver goods and services ... unless they settle disputes that stem from anti-worker action," Lerner has written in a strategy paper. Another key is to build the union as a vehicle for social justice that takes on issues of common concern to workers, their families and the community. Workers can then be motivated by more than narrow self-interest. The union's gains have been impressive. In its 10-year existence--a period of general decline for the labor movement--the Justice for Janitors campaign has organized an estimated 35,000 net new members. It now claims a total membership of 205,000, representing a fifth of all custodians working for private companies in the United States. The janitors have made the greatest headway in Los Angeles County, where the union has gone from representing 30 percent to 80 percent of the workforce over the last five years. On March 31, following a series of escalating direct actions, workers signed a countywide contract that for the first time gave them full family medical benefits--an enormous achievement at a time when even manufacturing and white-collar workers are losing health benefits. The contract--the second the SEIU obtained after gaining control of the industry--also brought all janitors earning minimum wage up to the downtown rate of $6.80 an hour. The union has conducted other successful campaigns in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, San Diego, Silicon Valley and Hartford, Ct. The union is now concentrating its efforts in Washington, where, during an eight-year struggle, it has gone from virtually no members to about 2,000, nearly 40 percent of the workforce. J for J, which already represents most of the 2,000 custodians in federal government buildings, hopes to organize two-thirds of the private contractors in time for next year's contract negotiations. Almost every working day for the last few years, members have taken to the streets in small groups to block roads, enter offices, and noisily demonstrate in front of office buildings and executives' homes. In recent months, J for J organizers have been using the city's fiscal crisis to frame their campaign--a classic instance of the union showing how its struggle relates to broad community concerns. J for J has focused relentlessly on property owners like Oliver Carr, who have received millions in tax breaks over the years, exacerbating the budget crisis that led Congress to effectively take over the district's government in March. Indeed, just as Congress was preparing to act, the city council voted to give property owners another $32 million tax rollback. Twice--once during December and once during March--union members and supporters from across the country converged on the city for week-long actions. Hundreds of protesters were arrested for blocking traffic. On the final day of the March mobilization, janitors and their supporters disrupted a city council meeting and held their own impromptu press conference on the tax rollback. A few miles away, while members sat in the Capitol office of Speaker Newt Gingrich, other anti-Carr protesters interrupted Gingrich's attempt to gavel the House to order. The next day, Washington Mayor Marion Barry vetoed the rollback. The two weeks of well-coordinated actions in Washington reinvigorated the organizing campaign and fired the imaginations of organizers from other unions. But the mobilizations also pointed up some of the potential limitations of the Justice for Janitors strategy. First of all, the strategy cannot be applied in every situation. Justice for Janitors organizers carefully evaluate a potential market and analyze a variety of important factors--such as the likelihood of organizing a majority of a market, and issues that could provide leverage over employers--before deciding to commit union money. J for J organizers urge unions and locals to test the waters with "mini-movements" in areas of strength before embarking on major campaigns. Unions adopting this strategy should also be prepared to fight some legal skirmishes. In Washington, SEIU is working under a court injunction that bars demonstrators from the entrances to Carr' s buildings--although an earlier edict forbidding members from even entering the buildings was overturned. A court recently held the janitors in contempt for a prayer vigil held at Carr's Maryland home, and ordered the union to pay Carr $13,000 in attorneys fees, ruling that the action was a union picket, not a religious ceremony. In addition, as even proponents are quick to point out, the J for J model is enormously expensive. The week-long mobilization in March cost the SEIU $125,000--a figure that doesn't even include staff salaries and attorneys fees. Indeed, salaries are a big part of the J for J budget. The campaign requires a sizable, skilled staff to follow through on the many details of its far-flung activities: turning out members, arranging rides and props, mapping out routes, printing fliers, setting up meeting places, and coordinating media coverage. Justice for Janitors spends about $2 million of the SEIU's $16 million annual organizing budget, estimates Building Services Division Organizing Director Bill Ragen. The SEIU devotes a larger proportion of its $55 million annual budget--30 percent of it--to organizing than any other international does, according to Stern. Some union activists who generally support Justice for Janitors question whether its heavy reliance on staff--it employs 110 organizers--will produce the rank-and-file union democracy they feel is necessary to produce meaningful social change. "Unions have to be structured so that workers run the unions," says David Bacon of Oakland, an organizer who has 20 years of experience with the United Electrical Workers, the United Farm Workers and other unions. "A staff-driven organizing campaign has a danger of producing a staff-dominated union." Justice for Janitors organizers counter by arguing that effective campaigns are best run by those who have the necessary skills and training. Besides, they contend, members will vote with their feet when they feel excluded. If the rank and file doesn't agree with the union's strategy, there won't be any campaign. They also point out that many of J for J's rank-and-file members have been moved up into staff positions and leadership roles. Meanwhile, Justice for Janitors faces a more practical challenge: It has fallen short of its goal of keeping up with the industry's growth. Although the union did add 35,000 members in eight years, those gains came as the building industry was rapidly expanding. About one-third of the current office space in the United States was built during the '80s--a boom that added many more nonunion janitors to the workforce. Since 1993, the union's growth has been almost flat, due to corporate downsizing and the stagnant commercial real estate market. While the union has does represent the majority of janitors in the downtowns of some large cities, it is only now beginning to attack the suburbs. And a 1988 court injunction shut down its only campaign in the South--among Atlanta custodians--with no membership gains. Stern says that even though the SEIU has made organizing a priority, it's still a struggle to wrest funds from a budget already stretched to service contracts and handle grievances. Nevertheless, he predicts that the SEIU will devote more of its organizing budget to non-NLRB, industry-wide organizing on the Justice for Janitors model. Indeed, the SEIU has already launched an aggressive campaign to organize the large nursing home chains. But much of the new money for such initiatives will have to come from locals, he says, many of which spend no more than 5 percent on organizing. Other unions are showing a growing interest in the J for J model. And Lerner is now working with the Organizing Institute to launch similar campaigns in other industries. Auto-parts suppliers are being looked at very closely. The suppliers are particularly vulnerable to any work stoppage since auto assembly lines depend on the timely and regular flow of parts. In addition, the auto industry already enjoys a solid membership base. Despite Justice for Janitors' impressive track record, few unions have adopted its tactics. Many labor leaders complain that workers are apathetic and won't show up for a union meeting, much less take to the streets. But Lerner says the problem isn't apathy as much as it is uninspired leadership: most members see their unions as irrelevant. Unions are not offering workers a vision worth fighting for, or giving them a plan with a reasonable chance of success, Lerner says. Justice for Janitors has proven that, with the right issues at stake, workers will take risks. In Los Angeles, dozens of janitors marched into Century City--and faced a brutal beating by the LAPD that sent 60 of them to the hospital. But they emerged stronger, with a court settlement, a majority of the industry organized and a new contract. "We need to figure out how we use our remaining power to organize now," Lerner says. "We need to relearn how to capture the imagination, generate excitement, and articulate a vision that can mobilize union and nonunion workers. ... Only by targeting on a grand scale and by taking big risks can we succeed in our organizing." For more information on Justice for Janitors and its organizing model, see Labor Research Review #18, "Let's Get Moving," by Stephen Lerner. Materials and information are also available from the SEIU's Building Services Division at (202) 898-3295, and the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute at (202) 408-0700. Source

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