July 7, 2000


Janitors Sweep Up Union Victories

by Saul Sarabia

All across the country, janitors have been demanding better wages and working conditions. And, with the support of their communities, they are winning.

In Los Angeles, 8,500 janitors went out on strike for three weeks in April and earned a raise of 26 percent over three years.

In May, 350 janitors in Cleveland upgraded from part-time to full-time work.

And their counterparts in San Diego, Chicago and Portland, Ore., have also gained pay increases and medical benefits for their families. Janitors are succeeding because their union has wisely coordinated a new national strategy and because they used old-fashioned community organizing to good effect.

The janitors' union is the Service Employees International Union. It realized that many big contracts were coming due this spring, and it brought pressure to bear on national employers.

The janitors' success provides a glimmer of hope for the rest of the country's workers who are not among the dot-com millionaires or the beneficiaries of the Dow Jones explosion. Their campaign for modest pay increases highlights the injustice of allowing entire families to live on below-poverty wages while individuals amass huge amounts of personal wealth.

As its primary battleground, it chose Los Angeles, home to the largest number of rich and poor households in the country. The strike by L.A. janitors —many of whom earn less than $15,000 a year— inspired broad community support, including active participation from grassroots community organizations and churches. Cardinal Mahoney, archbishop of Los Angeles, gave his support to the strikers and said a mass on their behalf.

There are several important lessons to learn from the janitors' campaign.

First, workers who clean expensive buildings —and the thousands who supported them in major cities across the United States— demonstrated courage and creativity in organizing against huge contractors. Some of these contractors are major multinational corporations with operations in faraway countries.

Second, the janitors have demonstrated that the plight of a largely immigrant workforce can appeal to universal themes of fairness and equality.

Third, by not relegating immigrants to the side, but by drawing on the leadership skills they bring from their home countries, movements for social justice can be revitalized.

Our nation's workforce is increasingly divided between under-educated, low-wage service workers and highly educated and technologically privileged managers. Watching some of this country's most vulnerable workers improve their lives has reassured millions of Americans who are uncertain about their place in the new economy.

As the janitors have demonstrated this spring, low-wage workers are going to demand share. And those demands are getting a receptive hearing from many people who are unwilling to accept the economic disparities of the new economy.

The victory of the janitors is a sign of things to come.

Saul Sarabia is a program director for the Community Coalition, which organizes residents in South Los Angeles. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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