Published on Tuesday, April 25, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Justice For Janitors:
Janitors Victory Galvanizes Workers Across The Nation
by Nancy Cleeland
Janitors overwhelmingly approved a new contract Monday, ending an imaginative and colorful three-week strike that is likely to be remembered as a watershed moment for Los Angeles labor.

Wearing their signature red strike T-shirts, the janitors celebrated with dancing and spritzes from water bottles in the union parking lot where nearly 2,000 cast ballots. With a county supervisor holding a mop, a state assemblyman holding a broom and a prominent downtown building owner donning a strike cap, the scene was a reminder of how much the political and economic landscape has changed in recent years.

The successful strike gave a shot of energy to dozens of Los Angeles unions as they enter a summer of contract negotiations that will affect 300,000 workers, from teachers to bus drivers. It also helped galvanize immigrant workers across the nation, who are increasingly demanding better wages and working conditions.

"This is the beginning of a new era for organized labor," declared Mike Garcia, president of the Service Employees International Union, Local 1877, which represents 8,500 janitors in Los Angeles County. "This fight wasn't just about us. That's why we got such tremendous community and political support. We were at the right place at the right time. People were looking for an underdog to root for."

While far from the $1-per-hour annual increase the union originally sought, the contract does raise wages by more than 25% over the next three years--more than any janitorial settlement in the past 20 years, Garcia said.

All janitors will receive an immediate $500 bonus. Those in outlying areas will get a 30-cent raise the first year, while those in more highly unionized downtown and Century City will get a 70-cent boost. Wages for all janitors will increase by 60 cents a year the next two years.

Contractors also will absorb any increases in health insurance costs. And by the end of the contract, all janitors will have five days of sick leave a year.

Dick Davis, chief negotiator for the janitorial contractors, said he would not characterize the settlement as a union victory. He said the final numbers were "within our original parameters. It was a win for both sides. They're happy, and we're happy."

In outlying areas, which include Glendale, Pasadena, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, contractors had just absorbed the equivalent of a $2-per-hour wage hike in January, when they added full medical insurance. Davis said some were concerned that the additional raise would cause building owners to drop their firms in favor of nonunion companies that generally pay the minimum wage of $5.75 per hour.

First-year raises for those areas were the main sticking point in the final week of negotiations.

Although the settlement was ratified with 88% of the vote, not all janitors saw it as a clear success. "I'm medio feliz, half-happy, because I thought we would get more," said Jose Chias, a shop steward in Woodland Hills who was a member of the negotiating committee. "Even as united as we were, every nickel was difficult."

In the final days of negotiations, both sides were only cents apart. Yet, at several points, it took the intervention of Mayor Richard Riordan, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, and downtown building owner Roger Maguire to get them back to the table.

Maguire, one of the largest building owners in the county, said he spent part of each day in the last three weeks trying to work out a deal between the contractors and the union. On Friday, he threatened to make his own deal with the union if the contractors didn't meet the final union demand.

To janitors, he has emerged as a near hero. Maguire appeared at the union lot Monday after the vote to wild cheers, put a red strike-cap on his head, and began signing strikers' T-shirts. "You do a terrific job. You're very productive and you deserve to be supported," he told the crowd. "I was happy to have done it, and I look forward to seeing you all back at work in my buildings."

In an interview, Maguire said the difficult negotiations had made him reconsider the role of building owners, who typically outsource janitorial work and have not been involved in setting wages for janitors. "In the future, we will be involved," he said.

Geoff Ely, president of the Building Owners and Managers Assn., however, said that was not a universal position.

"The union has tried to paint with a very broad brush the entire industry of owners and mangers of property. The fact of the matter is it is not a homogenous group, and that's why owners don't take a role in those negotiations."

Some janitors returned to work Monday night, but most, exhausted by weeks of marches and rallies, said they planned to return today.

Every day during the three-week work stoppage, the strikers pounded away at one simple message: Low-wage immigrant workers deserve to share in the region's prosperity. That message resonated, not only in Los Angeles but also across the nation.

The strike drew a series of national political figures, including Vice President Al Gore, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass). Scores of local and state lawmakers and religious leaders, including Mahony, backed the janitors, some making numerous phone calls on the union's behalf.

That so many were willing to align themselves with the janitors at an early stage in a labor dispute was in itself significant, said Daniel Mitchell, a labor economist at UCLA. "There is an increasing public awareness of low-wage workers, [unequal] income distribution. The issues of poverty are beginning to resonate. And it's easier for them to resonate in a period of general economic prosperity."

Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) took the stage at a post-vote rally with a broom in hand, joining a mop-wielding county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. He said the janitors strike was likely to inspire other unions to consider more aggressive actions, such as strikes.

"There's a feeling now that with unity and organization, they can take on some of the most powerful individuals and win," said Villaraigosa, who contrasted the support for immigrant workers today with the strong opposition to undocumented immigrants evidenced by passage of Proposition 187 just six years ago.

That new militancy, combined with increasing cooperation among labor, environmental groups and others, comes as the city is gearing up for the Democratic National Convention in August.

Scores of unions supported the strikers by honoring picket lines, staffing food banks and raising money. About $118,000 was raised from 76 union leaders at an emergency meeting called by the county Federation of Labor last week.

Janitors unions are now striking in downtown San Diego and suburban Chicago, and strikes are possible soon in the Silicon Valley, Cleveland, Seattle and Milwaukee, said Stephen Lerner, who directs the building services division for the SEIU.

"Part of the reason the whole labor movement rallied around this strike is that it was a taste of what labor can and will look like as it rejuvenates itself," Lerner said. "Many of our battles over the last 10 years have been defensive battles. This was 100% offensive.

Times staff writer Peter Hong contributed to this story.

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times