Justice for Janitors: A Misunderstood Success

by Peter Olney and Rand Wilson

Los Angeles, CA. 15 Ap. 08:  The first day of the labor sponsored 3 day march

Los Angeles, CA. 15 Ap. 08: The first day of the labor sponsored 3 day march “Hollywood to the Docks”.

Part two of a series looking back on the 20th anniversary the AFL-CIO’s New Voice movement

John Sweeney, his officers, and their staff team came into office with high expectations and great optimism. A good part of their inspiration was drawn from SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign that many had directly participated in or saw as a model of success. After all, Justice for Janitors had succeeded in mobilizing members, winning better contracts and organizing thousands of new, mostly Latino members while garnering broad public support.(1)

Founded in 1921, the Building Service Workers was a Chicago-based janitors, window washer and doormen’s union. George Hardy, the predecessor to John Sweeney as International President, was a San Francisco native and organizer who took his comrades from Hayes Valley to Southern California after World War II to organize janitors in Los Angeles. From his base at Local 399 in Los Angeles, Hardy launched the campaign to organize Kaiser and health care that would transform the Building Service Workers into the Service Employees International Union.(2)

By the 1980s, much of the union’s market power among urban janitors had eroded as the industry restructured to a cleaning model that relied on outsourced contract cleaners instead of permanent staff. When Justice for Janitors was launched in the late 1980s however, the union still retained tremendous power and thousands of members in its traditional strongholds of New York City, Chicago and San Francisco.

In these cities, the union had excellent contracts with good wages and benefits for doormen and cleaners. These were the “fortresses” that played such a crucial role in the success of the janitor’s campaigns in Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, Denver and San Diego where the battle was to reorganize weak and degraded bargaining units and organize thousands of new members.

The early janitor organizers in Los Angeles recognized the importance of first rebuilding and re-energizing their base. One of the first campaigns undertaken was the contract campaign for downtown janitors. Cecile Richards(3) skillfully directed a winning contract fight for the approximately 1,000 janitors in the core market of LA. The contract struggle gave the union a new core group of supporters; many of whom became the front line soldiers in the campaign to organize the vast non-union market outside of downtown.

A key to the membership mobilization was “market triggers” that Local 399 inserted into its collectively bargained agreements. The triggers provided for automatic increases in wages and benefits if the janitors union succeeded in organizing 50 percent or more of the commercial buildings in mutually agreed upon geographic areas. Thus, when rank and file union janitors marched for “justice for the unorganized janitors” it meant marching to increase their own wages and benefits and to gain a more secure future.

In Los Angeles long-time union signatory contractors like International Service Systems (ISS) were operating non-union or in the case of American Building Maintenance (ABM) double breasting by creating new entities like “Bradford Building Services” to clean non-union in LA.(4) On May 29, 1990 the SEIU janitors boldly struck non-union ISS buildings in the entertainment high rise complex called Century City. When the Daryl Gates-led police department brutally attacked the striking Los Angeles janitors on June 15, the shocking news footage traveled around the country.(5) With some prompting, SEIU Local 32 B-J leader Gus Bevona threatened ISS with a shutdown in New York City if the company didn’t settle in LA. That strategic solidarity contributed to victory and the nearly immediate organization of thousands of new members for SEIU Local 399.

Most successful organizing is not done in a vacuum, existing members have to be front line apostles.

The campaign even had a movie made about it; “Bread and Roses” directed by the Scottish filmmaker Ken Loach.(6) It did a fine job of presenting SEIU’s strategy to organize industry-wide and build a campaign that resonated broadly in the community particularly among Latinos. It also portrayed the challenges organizers always face in holding the unity of the working class. The deep divisions and contradictions among workers are often the biggest obstacle that needs to be overcome in order to have a shot at beating the boss.(7)

The Justice for Janitors campaign was often showcased by New Voice supporters as a premier example of “new” organizing. But what many union leaders and key staff strategists have missed is the fact it was not a “blank slate” campaign disconnected from the sources of SEIU’s membership and contract power. As we have shown above, it was a campaign (as William Finnegan also pointed out in an excellent New Yorker article) deeply rooted in the existing power, base and history of SEIU.(8)

Herein lies an important lesson: It takes members to organize members! While obvious and hardly a new concept, it was embraced as part of the New Voice strategy of “bargaining to organize” in 1996. But sadly the importance of worker-to-worker organizing, building strong committees and using our bargaining power with employers got lost. As a result, we’ve seen a multitude of costly “Hail Mary” passes being thrown in the labor movement with little chance of success because there is not the power of the market or the members in play.
Continue reading

Spring Awakens in the Boston Area: Climate Justice Joins Movements for Social and Racial Justice

by Paul Garver

Divestement and People of Color

As the piles of snow finally melted and spring blossomed in the Boston area, the movements for climate, economic, social and racial justice burgeoned and filled the assemblies and the streets with voices demanding genuine changes.

The reawakened Boston movements seems more numerous, more diverse, and more youthful than in previous years. The banners and chants are livelier, and the demands both more radical and more inclusive than before. The bravado and defiance of the Occupy Movement persists, but with greater direction, purpose and a sense that breakthrough victories are inevitable, even though to be achieved painfully and incrementally.

I spent much of Harvard Heat Week on the campus, in the assemblies and at the occupation. What struck me was the positive energy and patient eloquence of the students and their community and alumni supporters, along with their conviction that while Harvard University was not about to accede to the demand for divestment from fossil fuels, it would sooner or later be forced to do so. Tufts University students organized their own substantial protest action the following week. And as of May 17, Harvard students demanding divestment have again occupied the administration building.

Supporters of the campus divestment movement with their banners joined the massive and spirited march of the Fight for $15 the same week. For a number of years it has seemed that there been insufficient convergence between the campaigns for higher wages, for worker rights, for jobs for youth and against police brutality with those of the climate justice movement. Though these equally legitimate and parallel movements are all gaining traction in the Boston area streets, they are only now beginning to join together in mutual support.

But the silos that serve to isolate activists from each other are beginning to break down. Coalitions like Jobs for Justice are bringing together very diverse persons and organizations for mutual support and solidarity. And the effective climate justice organization Better Future Project/350Mass is not only building its own grassroots “nodes” to campaign for fossil fuel divestment and related climate issues – it is urging its members to join wholeheartedly in solidarity campaigns for economic, social and racial justice.

Following is a May Day statement from Emily Kirkland, Alissa Zimmer, and Craig Altemose of the Better Future Project {Cambridge, MA). Visit its web-site at http://www.betterfutureproject.org/ for information on all Massachusetts events related to climate justice.
Standing in Solidarity, from Baltimore to Boston and beyond
MAY 01, 2015 BETTER FUTURE PROJECT/350 MASS

Many of us are part of this movement because we see climate change as a social justice issue. We’re fighting for a clean energy economy because we know that the use of fossil fuels has devastating consequences for people already facing economic and racial injustice — especially communities of color here in the US and around the world. From poisoned air to polluted water, from droughts to flooding to extreme storms, communities of color are hit first and hit hardest.

But to truly stand in solidarity with the communities most impacted by fossil fuel use and global warming, we need to do more than demand action on climate change: we need to confront the other types of oppression and injustice that affect communities of color. When people of color are beaten or killed by the police, we have an obligation to speak out.

At the 350 Mass campaign summit a few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to share our core values with one another, and compassion and solidarity came up again and again. Putting those values into practice means fighting to end structural racism and state-sanctioned violence against Black people and other people of color.

We  urge members of the Better Future Project / 350 Mass community to show solidarity with those protesting the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man, at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department. 
Our commitment to solidarity should not be limited to a single event or a single crisis. As a community, we need to continue to find ways to stand with other movements and integrate social, racial, and economic justice into everything we do

There are multiple events happening over the next few weeks, including:
• Our Jobs. Our Truths. Our Lives. Wednesday, May 20, 3:00pm, Park Street Station, Tremont Street, Boston.

Funeral for Youth Jobs and People Lost to Police Violence

Youth Justice

Organized Labor Should Spend 2015 Training Workers How to Fight

BY David Goodner
While the labor movement is in some of its more dire straits in over a century, 2015 is also shaping up to be a big year for unions. The “Fight for $15” strikes held in over 200 cities on April 15 indicate that a mass movement for worker justice may be on the verge of exploding, one that blends the best of organized labor, community organizing, Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter. Oil workers, truck drivers, and dockworkers also went on widely publicized, confrontational strikes this year, and LA teachers at both public and charter schools are preparing to take action on the job, as are graduate students at the University of Washington and several other campuses.

Today, May 1, a Bay Area local of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union shut down its ports to protest the racism and police brutality against black and brown people, providing a classic example of what “social movement unionism” looks like in practice.

Unions are also fighting hard to block looming pension cuts and derail fast track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. But labor’s “Right to Work” defeat in Wisconsin in March was a huge setback, while the results of the April 7 Chicago mayor’s race were mixed, at best. Taken as a whole, the small upsurge in labor unrest in recent months has not been enough to slow down, much less stop and reverse, the steep historical decline of the trade union movement.   Continue reading

Join The Fight for $15

$15DSAThousands of people across the country will be taking part in a huge strike for better pay and working conditions  on April 15.  From fast-food to home care, airport, construction, and Walmart workers to adjunct professors and other underpaid workers, folks from every corner of the country and the globe will be joining together across industries on Tax Day, April 15th, for the Fight for $15.

Will you stand with them this Wednesday? Find an action near you.

You and I know that it’s inevitable in the capitalist system for bosses to exploit workers. But it’s not just happening at the level of individual workplaces. Corporations must compete with each other or die, and that means avoiding expenses as much as possible. Low-wage workers struggle to make ends meet and, if they can navigate the deliberately complicated application process and the constant shaming that comes with public assistance, they get the support they need from taxpayers while their employers get off the hook for paying higher wages. That’s what I call corporate welfare.

All workers deserve a union to demand their fair share of the fruits of their labor, but in the meantime, let’s demonstrate that collective action can be society-wide, not just in one workplace. It’s good practice for building a movement for democratic socialism. Continue reading

Panamanian Dock Workers Join the American Union ILWU

by David Bacon

[ed. note: In my experience as a labor organizer at the global level, international labor solidarity was often more rhetorical and moral than it was practically effective for workers on the ground.   In this exceptional case dock workers in Panama did not only receive effective support from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), but became members of that union’s local branch in Panama].  

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA (4/2/15) — You see a lot of parked taxis in the parking lot at the Panama Ports terminal here.  They’re not waiting to give rides to longshoremen.  Dockworkers themselves are the drivers.  Longshore wages in Panama are so low that after a shift driving a crane, a longshoreman has to put in another shift driving a taxi, just to survive.

At Panama Ports, however, this situation has begun to change.  A few weeks ago the union signed a new contract with raises totaling more than 27% over the next four years.  One factor that made this agreement possible was support from a U.S. union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.  That agreement will have a big impact on the lives of longshoremen and their families.

In Panama they call longshore pay “hunger wages.”  Workers’ families live below the government’s own poverty line, and some families literally go hungry. Continue reading

Raising Wages from the Bottom Up – part 2

By Harold Meyerson

$15DSAThree ways city and state governments can make the difference.

This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine.

THE FIRST STRATEGY, PIONEERED by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and copied in multiple cities, is to condition city approval of new projects seeking tax abatements, public funds, or other municipal assistance on those projects meeting labor criteria that benefit the city’s residents: the payment of living wages, the hiring of women and minorities, the adherence to environmental standards—and the ability of workers in the project to join unions.

No one has done more to foster unionization through such policies than Madeline Janis, LAANE ’s founding director and now the head of Jobs to Move America, which seeks to bring the manufacture of rail cars and buses—an industry almost entirely offshored in recent decades—back to the United States and back to unionized American workers. In 2008, Los Angeles voters levied a tax increase on themselves to fund the construction of an ambitious rail system. When L.A.’s transit authority began looking for a rail-car manufacturer, however, virtually all were overseas. Even more problematically, the federal Department of Transportation conditioned its considerable financial support for such transit projects on conventional lowest-bidder criteria. Janis managed to persuade the department to add a “best value” criterion that gives points to bidders who hire veterans and workers from neighborhoods with high poverty rates. Able to choose a bidder by those criteria, the L.A. agency selected a Japanese manufacturer that pledged to build a factory in L.A. County and, with further prodding from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, not to oppose its workers’ efforts to unionize. Transit agencies in Chicago and Maryland have now adopted contract criteria similar to those in Los Angeles. Continue reading

Labor in the Fields of California

Immigrant Farm Workers Pull Leaves off Vines in a Coachella Valley Grape Vineyardby David Bacon
When hundreds of people marched to the Los Angeles City Council last October, urging it to pass a resolution supporting a farm worker union fight taking place in California’s San Joaquin Valley, hardly anyone had ever heard the name of the company involved. That may not be the case much longer. Gerawan Farming, one of the country’s largest growers, with 5,000 people picking its grapes and peaches, is challenging the California law that makes farm workers’ union rights enforceable. Lining up behind Gerawan are national anti-union think tanks. What began as a local struggle by one grower family to avoid a union contract is getting bigger, and the stakes are getting much higher.

The Gerawan workers got the City Council’s support and, on February 10, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education passed a resolution that went beyond just an encouraging statement. The LAUSD purchases Gerawan’s Prima label peaches and grapes through suppliers for 1,270 schools and 907,000 students. The LAUSD’s resolution, proposed by board member Steve Zimmer, requires the district to verify that Gerawan Farming is abiding by state labor laws, “and to immediately implement the agreement issued by the neutral mediator and the state of California.”

Verifying compliance, however, may not be easy.  In mid-March a hearing on Gerawan’s violations of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) ended after 104 days of testimony by 130 witnesses.  Continue reading

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