Several thousand of the mainly Latino men and women who clean the most valuable properties in the United States are threatening to walk off the job in Los Angeles today. Their action comes as politicians hurry to pass legislation that would honour Cesar Chavez, the late labour leader described as the Latino Martin Luther King, with a state holiday.
The strike and the holiday are both signs of an emerging Latino-led radicalism in the US. A book to be published in May suggests that such moves could redraw the political map of the country.
The planned strike by 8,500 caretakers in Los Angeles is the latest sign of the power of Latino-dominated unions covering those who carry out many of the lowest paid and dirtiest jobs in the US.
Ten years ago, the Justice for Janitors campaign first drew attention to the pay and conditions of the people who cleaned the toilets of corporate America. Since then the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has been trying to fight the corner for these workers.
The Los Angeles strike is the first of several planned actions this month in Chicago, New York, Portland and San Diego.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of mainly Latino activists were yesterday celebrating the birthday of Cesar Chavez, who as the United Farm Workers leader helped to organise immigrant fruit-pickers in the 60s and 70s. The movement gained support well beyond its California core, with western boycotts of non-union produce.
Chavez, a modest man who asked not to be proposed for a Nobel Peace Prize, died in 1993. Though vilified by the authorities in his lifetime as a left-wing agitator, he has folk hero status in the Latino community, making politicians anxious to pay homage with a bill proposing an official holiday in his name. California's state assemly votes on the bill this month. There is also pressure for his life story to become part of the official cur riculum in schools. "The long history of political marginality is finally coming to an end," writes Mike Davis in his new book Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US City. "Latinos, all political pundits agree, are the sleeping dragon of US politics."
Mr Davis, who is best known for his acclaimed history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, said yesterday that politicians were now aware that they had to court the Latino vote because of this community's growing numbers. The Spanish-surname population in the US is increasing by 1m annually- 10 times faster than the Anglo population. In Texas, where the Republicans' presidential hopeful, George W Bush, is governor, one in five voters this year will be Latino.
In 1997, 235,000 Mexican immigrants became US citizens, smashing the previous record of one-nation immigration held by the Italians in 1944.
Mr Davis argues that many immigrants from south of the Mexican border "as well as transporting their local saints and madonnas northward have also transplanted their traditional village governments en bloc to specific inner-city Catholic parishes".
He adds: "What is most striking is the cultural unity and blue-collar solidity of Mexican Los Angeles. The Anglo conquest of California in the late 1840s has proven to be a very transient fact indeed."
The growth of the radical movement has been hidden from much of mainstream America, argues Davis.
"When more than 75,000 young Latinos, protesting anti-immigrant Proposition 187 [which banned children of undocumented immigrants from attending school and excluded
them from health care benefits] marched out of their high schools throughout California in 1994 - the largest student protest in that state's history - it was virtually ignored by the media networks, although a comparable uprising by black or white students would have become a national sensation."
Mr Davis believes that chambers of commerce now recognise that they have to negotiate with the low-paid workers as "union activists have hammered home the message that labour militancy is the only viable moral alternative to poverty-driven explosions of rage" in the form of riots.
Speaking from New York, where he now lives, Mr Davis suggested that the energy of the new Latino activists has also allowed them to take control of previously conservative, white labour federations. These unions can no longer afford to be exclusive white bastions, because their memberships are falling.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000