Western Janitors Join Forces

If you're one of the millions of Californians who work in downtown office buildings, you'd do well to mark the year 2000 on your calendar. Come spring of that year, janitors in cities throughout the West will demand a radical change in their economic status. If the megacorporations that hire the contractors that run the office buildings don't comply, be prepared to bring your own broom or vacuum cleaner to your worksite.Spearheading the initiative are janitors in this city's largely immigrant Service Employees Union (SEIU) Local 399 who last week cast their lot with janitors in Silicon Valley, Oakland and Sacramento. Together, they now form one of the largest building service union in the country, San Jose-based Local 1877."Janitors are poor but united we will be stronger," says Rosa Ayala, a downtown janitor who's worked for seven years to rebuild the Los Angeles local since it went through major demographic changes in the early 1980s. "We plan to be large enough, and strong enough, when the time comes to make a big change in our lives."Janitors are joining forces because their union locals face the same huge contractors, companies like the San Francisco-based Able Building Maintenance that clean hundreds of buildings across the country, or ISS, a multinational corporation based in Denmark.In last year's negotiations, SEIU's building service unions put themselves into position for much greater bargaining leverage, by lining up a single expiration date for almost all contracts that cover the office building janitors from California to Washington.When that date arrives janitors will be able to negotiate with the same companies in many different cities at the same time, instead of making separate deals with great variations in wages and conditions.Contractors may not accept this agreement without a strike or other test of strength."We have to deal with building services as a whole industry," says Mike Garcia, Local 1877 president, and a leading Latino voice in the AFL-CIO. "In every city the contractors are the same, and they work for some of the largest corporations in the world -- like Pacific Bell, Chevron, and Southern California Edison. They change cleaning contractors like socks. The only way to really change conditions, and protect our members, is to have the same set of wages and conditions for everyone."Winning the common expiration date was not easy. In Alameda County, Local 1877 had to organize rolling strikes all through last fall to get it. In San Diego and Seattle, janitors won the year 2000 date without a strike, but job actions were necessary to get it in Denver.Not all locals agreed on the multi-city strategy. San Francisco's SEIU Local 87 agreed to a contract which will expire in 1999. Their members, already the highest paid janitors in the country outside of New York City, felt they had less to gain from joint negotiations, and were unwilling to give up their ability to decide on their own demands.But for most janitors, the potential gains are obvious. Ayala notes that Los Angeles region wages drop from $7.10 an hour outside of downtown to $5.80, and even minimum wage in San Fernando Valley. Downtown janitors have family medical coverage, but others have only individual coverage."What we have isn't enough even in the higher areas," Ayala explains, "and we have to generalize so we have one industry, one union, and one contract. These contractors are powerful. We can't win unless we act together."The ability to move toward coast-wide negotiations is a testament to the success of Justice for Janitors, an organizing strategy pioneered by immigrant workers in SEIU. Ten years ago, Los Angeles' big real estate and development interests had effectively broken Local 399. Using the enormous influx of immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America as a wedge, building owners and janitorial contractors dumped their union workforce, and hired immigrants at rock bottom wages.But the contractors had severely underestimated their new workforce. Local 399 set up a new organizing department, and began using a new strategy.The union did away with representation elections, a process many unions feel is now totally dominated by employers. Instead, Local 399 used demonstrations, sit-ins and civil disobedience in building lobbies, even blocking traffic on major thoroughfares to go after the whole building service industry rather than individual contractors.These tactics relied on the militancy of immigrants -- workers who had faced down government terror in El Salvador or Guatemala. They appealed to workers who learned, as children in Mexico, that they have a right to a fair share of society's wealth but they have to fight to get it.Those traditions served well in rebuilding their union. In 2000 they will face the challenge of using their newfound power to achieve a normal standard of living for the country's building service underclass. No one who works in office buildings will fail to notice the difference if they do not succeed.

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