Justice for Janitors:
On Strike in L.A.'s Gleaming Towers
Revolutionary Worker #1050, April 16, 2000
"Estamos en huelga! Que limpien los ricos!" "We're on strike! Let the rich do the cleaning!"
The chants echo off the glass and marble towers of Bunker Hill, the downtown L.A. district of skyscraper office buildings. Far above the street, the names in lights are a rogues gallery of global imperialism: Arco, Mellon Bank, Citibank, Bank of America, AT&T. Inside the highrise buildings are the offices of city administrators, hot-shot lawyers, and CEOs of multinational corporations.
Monday night, April 3: The first day of the Los Angeles janitors' strike. Nearly 1,000 striking janitors, almost all of them Latino immigrants, march through the streets and picket the entrances of these gleaming towers. At the top of the Bunker Hill steps, a line of LAPD cops in riot gear stands guard, trying to keep a building entrance open for scabs. A union organizer says that earlier, the cops had clubbed two strikers. Tonight, the offices and bathrooms of the L.A. Times won't get cleaned.
Over 6,000 union janitors, members of Justice for Janitors, SEIU Local 1877, started walking out when the big cleaning contractors they work for refused to sign a new contract with the union. This 8,500 member union represents workers who clean over 70% of the commercial office space in Los Angeles County. The workers are demanding a raise from the $6.80 per hour base pay they are making now, which is barely enough to survive on. Their union asked for a one-dollar-per-hour raise in beginning pay, each year, for the next three years. The companies offered less than half that.
A union organizer told the RW, "These janitors have been fighting for 10 years to get decent wages, and now we go to the table and they offer us a measly 50 cents (increase) for downtown Los Angeles, in these buildings where people pay literally millions of dollars for rent each month. It's absolutely outrageous that the people who clean the most luxurious buildings in Los Angeles can't support their families, can't buy houses, can't buy cars, spend an hour on the bus getting to work every day and spend an hour on the bus getting home every day. They keep these buildings beautiful."
The companies have harassed and threatened workers for speaking out and supporting the union. A lot of the workers suspect the companies want to take back what has been won in past struggles like health insurance for workers and their families, sick leave, and seniority protection. Faced with all of this, the workers voted to strike against six of the 18 companies that have union contracts.
While Others Sleep
During the day the streets of downtown L.A. are jammed with cars and people. At night it's like a ghost town. While others sleep, this is the workplace for the people who scrub toilets, dump trash, vacuum floors and dust desks and computer screens. Almost all the proletarians in low-wage jobs in L.A. are Latinos. Janitors are from all over Latin America: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other countries. Over half are women. The hours are difficult, and the work is hard.
But tonight they are out in the streets, ready to tell their story.
Araceli, a woman in her early 30s from Mexico City told the RW, "Yeah, these are the hours. We work from 5 p.m. to 2 or sometimes 3 in the morning. My kids are with a babysitter. We have to pay the babysitter. It's really hard for us and for our kids as well. Because besides having to pay for child care, we have this unsettled feeling about our kids because of working."
Araceli pays the babysitter $60 a week. Other workers say they pay babysitters $100 or $120. Her husband also works as a janitor, but in a different part of the city. It's nearly impossible for a family to survive on one janitor's paycheck. Juan Manuel, a 33-year-old worker from Durango, Mexico, said his wife stays home because they have a new baby, but he now has to work a part-time job in addition to his janitor work.
Araceli went on about the work. "We use a vacuum, and sometimes it's really heavy. Or they want us to work with stuff that doesn't work, they want us to struggle with this broken equipment, and they don't want to give you anything better."
Janitors have to use a lot of harsh cleaning solutions, and end up with their hands burned and they can also get sick from these chemicals. Some companies don't even want to give them rubber gloves or other safety equipment.
Araceli told the RW how it felt now that they were in the streets struggling against the companies: "We feel really good because we hope this will be something good for everyone, not just for one person. For our families, for our future. Because we work very hard in these offices, for very few benefits. The pay is really low. The work is hard in all the buildings, and there's a lot of stress."
Cleaning highrise buildings used to be a good-paying union job, $12 to $15 an hour. But beginning in the mid-1980s, new companies started up, hiring refugees from Central America and Mexico, people who had been forced to come to Los Angeles by war and economies twisted and plundered by imperialism. These new workers got el minimo, the minimum wage.
At the same time, there have been changes in the way office buildings are cleaned. Rather than hire their own staffs of housekeepers and janitors, building managers practice "out-sourcing." A few large companies with hundreds of workers contract for most of the cleaning in highrises. One Source, a large cleaning and building management company, for example, is owned by a British holding company, which bought it from a Danish company. It is headquartered "off-shore" in Belize. Other companies have similar stories: These are global capitalists, chasing the biggest buck--and the chance to pay the lowest wages--anywhere in the world. Building managers now pretend they have nothing to do with the workers who labor in the night to keep their buildings spotless. One of them told a reporter, "We don't have a dog in this fight."
Beginning in the late 1980s, these under-paid janitors organized a union. They spent years marching, demonstrating and picketing, wearing their bright red tee shirts with Justice For Janitors--Justicia--written in bold on the front. In 1990, they were able to get a contract that included health insurance, sick leave and other benefits. Now they are fighting to maintain that little security.
While politicians and businessmen talk about the great economic boom times we are living in, the L.A. Times states: "Low wages for blue-collar workers are a given in Los Angeles."
Trying to keep your family fed on $7 an hour is hard, even if husband and wife are both working. Even so, many of the workers send money back to their countries to take care of their parents or other relatives. Few can afford a car. Javier, a man in his mid-30s from northern Mexico, talked about his situation:
"I live an hour and a half from here, in El Monte, California. I take the bus and every day I have to pay $2.25 to come here on the freeway, to come to work in downtown L.A. I spend $2.25 more to get home. I spend a lot of money, but now if you want to buy a car, the price of gas has gone up. Food, rent, everything has gone up, but the company doesn't want to raise our pay.... Everybody does different jobs. The job I do is "baņero"--I clean bathrooms. I clean them on eleven floors. The work I do is dirty. You have to go around with protective clothing, to not get some infection."
Cleaning 11 floors of bathrooms in eight hours is not easy. Other workers talked about hauling bags of trash for four hours of their shift. And the companies are always trying to speed the workers up--giving them more to do in the same amount of time. Javier said:
"I have too much to do in eight hours. They give us more work, but they don't give us more hours. They ask us to do more and more. The company presses us to make everything neat and clean, but we're not well-paid. They want quality work, they don't give us quality pay. Right now the starting pay is $7 an hour. But the minimum wage is going up, and the company is offering us pennies. Look at the work people do: they vacuum, take out the trash, and more. The work the women do is hard for them."
Most of the women have two jobs: cleaning downtown offices and taking care of kids and home. Two women from El Salvador told the RW what they do every day. Noemi is 31. To get to work in Sherman Oaks, the closest part of the San Fernando Valley to West L.A., she leaves home at 5:00 p.m. and spends an hour on the bus. For the next eight hours, she cleans offices, takes out the trash, cleans floors and vacuums. She has heavy calluses on her hands from hauling all the machinery. After work, she spends an hour on the bus and gets home about 3:30 a.m. She gets up again at 6:30 a.m. to get her kids ready for school, after which she sleeps for a few more hours. At 10:00 she starts on the housework. By the time she has finished cleaning and cooking, it's time to get ready for work.
Maria, who is 26, has even less time for sleep. She spends an hour and a half on the bus each way. Her daughter is one year old. After going to bed at 3:30 a.m., she gets up at 6:00 a.m. She and her husband both work as janitors, so sometimes he can take care of the child. They pay their babysitter $100 a week.
Maria has been in the U.S. since she was 16. Most of the workers who talked to the RW had similar stories. They came to El Norte in the late '80s or early '90s. Juan Manuel had a simple reason for coming from his village in the Mexican state of Durango. "I come from a rancho. Life is very hard for workers there in the countryside. You can't get anything, even food to eat. You have to look for a way to make a little progress. That's the reason for most of those who come here looking for a better future."
Arturo, another immigrant from the Mexican countryside, talked about what he thought before he came to the U.S.: "I thought everything here was beautiful, that I was going to have everything. But then, it's not like that. It's another reality that you don't really expect." Some immigrants dream of returning to the countryside, of saving a little money so they can buy a plot of land. But Arturo said: "I come from the countryside, from a little pueblo. I don't think I'm going to go back. Because my whole family is here. It would be really difficult for them to adjust to the life back there."
Right after it started, on Monday, April 3, the janitors' strike spread in waves to all areas of L.A. On Tuesday, 3,000 marched through downtown L.A., taking to the streets, and briefly blocking the exit ramp to the Harbor Freeway through downtown. There were marches and walkouts in West L.A., in Woodland Hills, the furthest point in the San Fernando Valley, in Century City, an area of highrise offices, a shopping mall and entertainment complex next to Beverly Hills. By the week's end, workers had walked off the job at all the targeted companies. On Friday, April 7, the workers staged a "pilgrimage"--an eight-hour march from their headquarters in Pico Union, on the border of downtown, to Century City, through many of the commercial centers of the city: Mid-Wilshire, Miracle Mile, Westlake. They held a rally at the La Brea Tarpits, in Hancock Park, named for a millionaire who got rich from his huge plantations in Mexico. According to organizers, about 3,000 workers participated.
Everywhere the janitors walked out, they took to the streets, tying up traffic, and looking for support. Among Latino people in L.A.--who make up 45% of the population--there is a lot of support for the strikers. And other sections of the people have also shown their support. An office worker in Century City came out to welcome the strikers and speak out against the hypocrisy of the building management, which provides free coffee and doughnuts for everyone in the building, but won't support a dollar raise over three years for the people who do the hardest work. In downtown L.A., motorists honked their support and some shopkeepers saluted the marchers with clenched fists.
Other unions are also supporting the striking janitors. The SEIU contributed money to a strike fund. The L.A. County Federation of Labor set up emergency food banks. And the walkout was sanctioned by the Teamsters Union, which means that Teamsters--which includes UPS workers and rubbish collectors--won't cross picket lines. The United Teachers of Los Angeles sent representatives to the janitors' demonstrations. The Building Trades Council, representing carpenters, laborers and other construction workers, is also supporting the strike. There has also been extensive sympathetic coverage on Spanish-language radio and TV stations.
British film director Ken Loach's forthcoming movie Bread and Roses chronicles the janitors' unionization battle of the early 1990s. Loach spent six weeks filming in Los Angeles last fall and when he heard about the strike he sent a solidarity fax from London that said, "Good luck for a great day on Monday [the day of the first big demonstration] and victory in the campaign." Bread and Roses, which uses both professional actors and real-life janitors, tells the story of two Latino sisters who risk deportation for their involvement in the unionization drive. According to Ken Loach's producer, Rebecca O'Brien, a lot of the people on strike now are in the film.
In the face of the workers' bold actions and the broad support for the strike, the authorities have been put somewhat on the defensive. There were no arrests during Tuesday's April 4 march through downtown, even though the workers seriously disrupted business as usual. Three people were arrested during an action Thursday, April 6, in Century City. All are now out of jail, but may face criminal charges. And on Friday, a judge refused to issue an order against picketing. Judges usually grant these kinds of orders.
The janitors' strike has produced a welcome outpouring of deep anger. "They treat us like modern-day slaves," one woman practically shouted at a reporter. Day after day, this anger has turned large parts of the city upside down. But so far, the companies have not even agreed to meet with negotiators. A week without pay is an extreme hardship for low-wage workers. As we go to press, the strike is beginning its second week. But the workers are determined to win their struggle.
The janitors from Latin America were forced to come to the U.S. because their countries are dominated and exploited by imperialism. Now, in the belly of the beast, they are up against the same capitalist system. Their strike is shining a light on the growing gap between the rich and the poor in this country and how this system is based on exploitation.
The first night of the strike, as Araceli finished talking about her life, she looked up at the lights in the skyscrapers and said, "Rich people come back here to enjoy their money. Because they come down to exploit the poor people in Mexico, in Guatemala and El Salvador, to take from them the little that they have. They came back here to enjoy their money, going to big parties, having the best food, just throwing it away. And wherever you look here, people are doing heavy work. It's unbelievable!"
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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