Published on Thursday, April 13, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Justice For Janitors:
Organization, Commitment Power Strike
by Nancy Cleeland
Wednesday starts, like every day, with a high-level strategy session at 8 a.m., followed by a larger staff meeting at 9. By 10, the word is out to dozens of team captains crowding the halls at union headquarters--who's marching where, who's picketing which buildings.
Twenty buses are assigned points to pick up strikers for the candlelight vigil at Pershing Square. Candles? Check. Matches? Don't worry, says logistics coordinator Triana Silton. We have enough smokers to take care of that. A hearty laugh. Then, the signature sign-off: "Se puede?" Silton calls out. Can we do it? "Si, se puede," they shout back. And in a flash, the janitors are off.
For 10 days, the chanting, red-shirt-clad strikers have been a nagging presence, inserting themselves into the consciousness of workaday Los Angeles as they march across town or cluster outside the gates of office towers.
The union calls it a rolling strike, building day by day, pulling in the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Ventura and, today, Los Angeles International Airport. No one knows where it will go next--not even the organizers.
Decisions are made on the run: The cardinal says he'll celebrate a Mass, and 1,000 people holding white carnations appear at Arco Plaza the next morning. Prominent building owners resist union overtures, and within hours tent camps are sprouting in front of their headquarters, with volunteers to staff them around the clock.
The organization of the janitors strike is a sight to behold, and unions across the country are sending representatives to take it in. Organizers from the Longshoremen's Union in San Francisco, the United Farm Workers in Delano, Calif., and janitors' locals in Washington, Fresno and Seattle are among those sitting in on Wednesday morning's meeting, to learn as well as to lend a hand.
"I've never seen anything like it," says Randy Parraz, an AFL-CIO field representative from San Francisco. "The members have complete ownership of this strike."
Although it remains unclear whether the janitors will win anything close to their demand of a $1-an-hour raise in each of the next three years, they have achieved two early goals: They have pulled Mayor Richard Riordan, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and many state and local lawmakers into their camp, and they have persuaded at least some prominent building owners to become informally involved in negotiations.
What made that happen, more than anything else, was the members' consistent show of strength.
From the unlikeliest of candidates--people who work at night, alone, isolated in the office towers they clean and the immigrant neighborhoods they call home--the Service Employees International Union has assembled a focused and committed army that can turn on a dime.
It didn't happen overnight. SEIU Local 1877 has been working for three years to identify leaders from the ranks, train them and build their confidence.
In weekend classes, union officials explained the janitorial industry and the commercial real estate market, and compared union wages and strategies in other cities.
When the five-year master contract covering 8,500 Los Angeles janitors expired March 31, thousands of members were ready to go.
"This didn't just happen," Silton said. "We've been building toward this for years."
Wednesday morning, the preparation shows. Hallways inside the union building on 7th Street are lined with organizational charts. From these charts, one can see at a glance how many protesters picketed Monday in Santa Monica and when the last meeting was held with members in Hollywood.
The chart is split into a dozen geographic areas, with each community assigned to a PEGA--Poderoso Equipo Geografico de Accion, or Powerful Geographic Action Team. Each PEGA has a leader, who in turn keeps a list of shop stewards responsible for all workers in their building.
It's 9 a.m., and Silton is still huddled in a meeting with local President Mike Garcia and a few other key organizers, plotting the day's strategy. When they appear, dozens of staff members and volunteers file into a meeting room.
First, reports from the field: All four encampments are still standing, despite early attempts by police to tear them down. All were staffed through the night.
Garcia gives an update: A lot is happening behind the scenes. Phone calls are being made. The mayor is very much with them. "We're very close," he says. "But it could still go wrong, so we have to continue the pressure in the streets."
The theme for the day, Silton tells the group in Spanish, is community support. Each PEGA will stay in its own area and do a small march around local offices at noon. Then everyone regroups at 5 to be picked up by buses for the vigil at Pershing Square.
The meeting wraps up at 10, and after a closing chant, the janitors and staff are on their way.
Cesar Oliva, a janitor for 10 years and now an internal organizer for the union, hurries to his van.
At the gates of Paramount Studios, he screeches to the curb. There, a dozen strikers in red shirts cluster in the shade. They'd been at the site until 11 the night before and returned at 10:30 that morning.
Only about 60% of the janitors at Paramount have joined the strike, and those who continue to work inside can be clearly seen through the gates. "Why do we have to put up with this?" asks an agitated Walter Martinez. "Can't we stop them from going in there? We have to do something about them."
Oliva warns him. "You have to keep control of yourself. We're winning this strike. We don't want to lose it on some caprice."
"I'll keep an eye on him," says fellow striker Aurelia Rivera, a single mother of three who has worked at Paramount for seven years and earns $6.90 an hour. "Walter, remember what we're fighting for."
Oliva dashes back to his van and races up U.S. 101 to Warner Center, where about 80 strikers are gathered in the shade of a tree. It's nearly noon, and the march should be starting. He grabs a bullhorn.
"Listo?" Oliva shouts. Ready? "Si," the 80 strikers shout back. And the march sets out toward the gleaming office buildings where many have spent years working the night shift.
"Que queremos?" Oliva shouts through the bullhorn. What do we want? "Justice," they answer, some pushing strollers, some holding the hands of their young children. "When?" Oliva asks.
They answer at once, "Now."
At nightfall, 12 hours after the strategy session that started the day, about 2,000 strikers gather at Pershing Square. They hold candles aloft, wave placards and chant for their cause.
Members of other unions are here too, in support, as the crowd listens to speeches.
"I've been a janitor 10 years, and I work through the night sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, dusting, taking out the trash, cleaning desks," Dora Posada says. "The small raise we are asking for may not seem like a lot, but for all of our families, it will make a big difference in our lives."
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times