West Coast Janitors Get Ready to Fight


On March 17, after seven
years of rebuilding their union, Service
Employees Local 399, Los Angeles janitors are
leaving it. Together with janitors from Silicon
Valley, Oakland, and Sacramento, they are joining
to create one of the largest building service
unions in the country—Local 1877.

Rosa Ayala, who’s been
through LA’s labor wars as a 399 veteran,
sees the step as a watershed which may finally
result in janitors achieving what most would see
as a normal standard of living—moving away
from the exploited life of the building service
underclass. "Janitors are poor," she
says. "But united we will be stronger."

The 1990s have been filled
with turmoil for southland janitors. In the
mid-1980s, their union was broken, as cleaning
contractors dumped their organized workforce and
broke their bargaining agreements. After five
years of war in the office buildings, janitors
rebuilt their organization. They marched,
demonstrated, sat in, fasted, and in general
conducted their organizing battles so far out in
public they became a symbol of the labor
militance of LA’s immigrant workers.

But the battle of the
janitors isn’t over yet. In almost every
major urban center, janitors’ union locals
face the same huge contractors. Companies like
Able Building Maintanence clean hundreds of
buildings across the country. ISS, another
contractor, is a major multinational corporation
with operations in Europe and other countries.

In last year’s
contract negotiations, SEIU’s building
service unions won potentially much greater
bargaining leverage against these companies. They
lined up the expiration dates for almost all the
union contracts which cover the cleaning of
office buildings from California to Washington.
They expire in the spring of 2000.

A common expiration date
means that janitors unions will be negotiating
with the same companies at the same time, in many
different cities. Instead of negotiating separate
agreements in each city, with great variations in
wages and conditions, the union is taking the
first step in pursuing a master agreement to
cover everyone.

"What we’re
looking for is industrial power," says Mike
Garcia, Local 1877 president. "We have to
deal with building services as a whole industry.
It’s not just a group of small contractors,
different in every city. The contractors are
often the same. And the client companies, who the
contractors work for, are some of the largest in
the world—like Pacific Bell, Chevron, and
Southern California Edison. They change cleaning
contractors like socks. So the only way to really
change conditions, and protect our members, is to
have the same set of wages and conditions for

Winning the common
expiration date was not easy, nor was it
universally accepted by all janitors’ locals
on the west coast. In Alameda County, Local 1877
had to organize rolling strikes through the fall
to win an agreement. While members won wage
raises and better medical benefits, these issues
weren’t the sticking point. The expiration
date was the problem, and in the end, the
contractors were forced to agree. In San Diego
and Seattle, they won the year 2000 without a
strike, but job actions were necessary to get it
in Denver as well.

In San Francisco, however,
SEIU Local 87 struck some buildings near the
waterfront for one night, but in the end agreed
to a contract which will expire a year earlier
than the rest of those on the coast. In part,
this reflects the fact that the city’s
janitors are the highest paid in the country
outside of New York City. Basically, 87’s
members felt they had less to gain from joint
negotiations, and were unwilling to strike for
the common date.

But the overall strategy
for pursuing joint bargaining in 2000 also
requires local unions to give up some of their
autonomy—their ability to decide, on their
own, bargaining demands, and to control
negotiations on a local level. Local 87 janitors
were unwilling to do that.

In some unions which
negotiate together for the whole west coast, such
as the longshoremen, members from different
cities elect delegates to a coastwide caucus.
Delegates then agree on the contract demands,
elect a negotiating committee, and bind the
committee to the demands. A similar structure for
joint bargaining among janitors has yet to be set
in place.

Nevertheless, for most
janitors, the potential gains are clear. Ayala
notes that in the Los Angeles basin, wages vary a
lot from area to area. Outside of downtown, where
the workers start at $7.10 an hour, the base rate
falls to $5.80, and even to minimum wage in San
Fernando Valley. Downtown janitors have a medical
plan which covers their whole family. In the
buildings along the Wilshire corridor, and in
Beverly Hills and Westwood, janitors only have
individual coverage.

The ability to move toward
coastwide negotiations is a testament to the
success of the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors
organizing strategy. Joint bargaining is only
possible if the union already represents most
workers in the industry. Ten years ago, Local 399
couldn’t say that, nor could 1877.

Over that decade, Local 399
has been one of the labor movement’s success
stories. In the mid-1980s the picture looked very
different. At that time, the city’s big real
estate and development interests had effectively
broken the local in building services. Using the
enormous influx of immigrant workers from Mexico
and Central America as a wedge, building owners
and janitorial contractors dumped their old,
union workforce, and hired immigrants at rock
bottom wages, with no union contract.

While the move lowered
costs in the short term, contractors severely
underestimated the potential militance and
pro-union sympathies of their new workforce.
Local 399 regrouped, and set up a new organizing
department. Its organizers began using tactics
developed by Justice for Janitors, contributing
new thinking to them as well.

In 1989 the tide turned for
the union, when the LA Police Department cornered
a janitors’ march among the skyscrapers of
Century City, which they clean every night, and
beat the hell out of the participants. The police
riot, eventually denounced even by Mayor Bradley,
won the union the support it needed to regain its
contracts, which now cover the largest of the
city’s janitorial contractors.

The Century City riot also
set the tone for the organizing tactics which
became the hallmark of Justice for Janitors. No
longer did the union try to hold labor board
elections, a process many unions feel has become
dominated by employers. Instead, 399 used the
direct pressure of demonstrations, sit-ins, and
civil disobedience in building lobbies, even
blocking traffic on major thoroughfares. The
union went after the whole building service
industry, instead of individual contractors.
These new tactics brought the needs of some of
the city’s poorest workers directly to the
doorstep of some of its most powerful
citizens—the building owners themselves.
LA’s labor activists watched in admiration,
and used the same strategy for other conflicts.

Janitors’ tactics
relied on the militance of immigrant workers.
Local 399’s organizers mobilized them again
and again, bringing them into the street to win
contracts. They drew on the traditions and
experience of workers who faced down government
terror in El Salvador or Guatamala. They appealed
to workers who learned, as children in Mexico,
that while they have a right to a fair share of
the wealth of society, they have to fight to get

Having rebuilt the janitors
union in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, the only
major area now in California where the janitors
union doesn’t represent a clear majority is
Sacramento. Local 1877 started a Justice for
Janitors campaign there two years ago, and is
currently locked in an all-out fight with the
city’s major contractor, Somers Building

When Local 399’s
janitors voted on the proposal last December to
move to Local 1877, the tally was 1,900 to 200 in
favor. Mike Garcia interprets the vote as a move
away from the turmoil which engulfed the union in
the wake of elections two years ago. In 1995 an
insurgent group captured the union’s
executive board, and became locked in a bitter
power struggle with its president, Jim Zellers.
After a series of unfruitful negotiations, the
international union placed the local in
trusteeship. Garcia, who has been president of
Local 1877, based in San Jose, was assigned as

Since the trusteeship,
Cesar Oliva, a janitor who was elected executive
vice president on the insurgent Multiracial
Alliance slate, has gone to work on the
local’s staff as a field representative.
Ayala explains that janitors have organized a
steward system in the buildings, and area-wide
committees which take up and refer members’

"I think the vote
means that members support this program,"
Garcia says. Local 1877 will have to develop new
structures to ensure that rank-and-file members
have the ability to make decisions over union
policy. Having a single membership meeting is
impossible, given the union’s wide area of
jurisdiction and its thousands of members. Garcia
predicts that some form of chapter or council
organization will be adopted, in addition to the
union’s elected executive board.

Until now, Local 399’s
28,000 members have included 8,000 janitors,
along with 4,000 in the union’s allied
division, whose members work in racetracks,
arenas, and stadiums. When these groups join
1877, that union’s membership will rise to
about 20,500.

Local 399 will become a
union for workers in the private healthcare
industry. At present, the local represents
workers at seven Kaiser hospitals and a number of
clinics in the LA area. Those workers are already
under the gun. Kaiser has announced plans for
closing inpatient services at its Sunset
Hospital, and moving them to St. Vincent’s,
a non-union hospital owned by Catholic Healthcare
West. As many as 1,800 Kaiser workers could lose
their jobs.

SEIU, which represents a
large percentage of healthcare workers in
northern California, only represents 6-8 percent
in Los Angeles. According to Eliseo Medina,
"we’re going to change all that."
As SEIU’s top official on the west coast,
and with a long history as an organizer, he plans
to make healthcare the union’s priority
target for new organizing drives. Medina was
recruited by Cesar Chavez as a teenager in the
fields of the San Joaquin Valley, and eventually
became a vice president of the United Farm
Workers. After leaving the UFW, he headed San
Diego’s own janitors Local 2028, when it
more than doubled in size.

"To organize the
healthcare industry in Los Angeles, we need a
purely healthcare union," he says.
"Local 399 is it." Medina and other
SEIU organizers plan to adapt Justice for
Janitors’ freewheeling campaign style to

"In addition,"
Medina says, "over 2 million people receive
their healthcare through union plans. That gives
us a lot of economic leverage over HMOs and
healthcare providers. Why should union dollars be
spent on care by companies who deny workers their
rights and who violate labor law?"

So as janitors prepare for
their own confrontation in 2000, the city may
also see a new wave of marches and street
demonstrations by low-wage workers—this time
from hospitals, challenging the
anything-for-a-profit, managed care system.

David Bacon is a freelance
writer and photographer, focusing on labor