Justice for Janitors

Last Saturday police arrested and charged dozens of striking Los Angeles janitors and their supporters who had blocked a road junction. This 2000 strong was part of the Janitors struggle for better pay. Gene Pepi from Socialist Alternative, the Socialist Party’s US counterpart, reports.

CHANTING “HUELGA! Huelga!” [Strike, strike!] 500 Justice for Janitors strikers marched down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills on 5 April. “One moment all you see on this street are Rolls-Royces and Range Rovers and then this,” said a top hatted, hunting frock clad, attendant at one of the posh local retail centres.

A day earlier 3,000 strikers blocked freeway exits near the Los Angeles (LA) county government centre. By Friday 7 April, more than 2,500 people marched for ten hours through the streets of LA to demonstrate their support for the demands of striking members of Service Employees International Union Local 1877, the California-wide Justice for Janitors union.

Last Monday 3,000 members voted by a more than 75% margin to reject management’s latest offer and go on strike.

Most of these workers are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The work force is almost 55% women too, many of whom are single mothers. SEIU Local 1877 represents janitors in about 70% of LA County’s rental office space, which includes almost all of downtown LA and Century City, but is much weaker in the LA suburbs.

Why a Strike?

LOS ANGELES union janitors are among the lowest paid in the country, earning less than their counterparts in most major US cities. In this strike they are hoping to gain a $1 per hour wage increase in each of the next three years. LA janitor’s wages now range from $6.90 to $7.80 per hour. The minimum wage in the US is $5.75, which is what most non-union janitors in the area earn. Many work two jobs to make ends meet.

Janitors work with toxic cleaning chemicals and at a very physically demanding pace. Non-union janitors and even the families of the union janitors do not have health insurance. Family medical coverage for only a part of the union janitors was gained only earlier this year. 72% of LA school children live in poverty.

John Sweeney, current head of the US labor federation, the AFL-CIO, rose to its top on the basis of the organising success of the SEIU. A big part of that success was the Justice for Janitors campaign.

This strike and several others by Latino immigrants are examples of what forced Sweeney and the AFL-CIO to recently call for the legalization of undocumented immigrant workers in the US. This is a significant change in the previous anti-immigrant policy of the US labor federation leaders.

Unions affiliated to the LA County Federation of Labor, the largest single trade union council in the US with more than 400,000 members, committed to support the picket lines of the striking janitors. Truck drivers who deliver parcels, food and beverages and remove garbage from the buildings said they would not cross the lines as did building maintenance and construction workers who fix air conditioning units and remodel the buildings.

Nationally, other SEIU janitors’ locals have pledged to walkout in support of the LA strikers. SEIU has also built a $1 million strike fund for this effort.

The people who own and operate the buildings these janitors clean are some of the wealthiest and most politically connected people in LA.

Take for example Richard Ziman, chief executive at Arden Realty. His company owns more ‘Class-A’ office property than anyone else in LA. He is a bigtime fund raiser for Democratic Party politicians like Bill Clinton, Al Gore and California Governor Grey Davis.

Estimates are that the increased pay for janitors will add one penny more per square foot toward the cost of cleaning LA’s megabucks office buildings.