U of M MAPL 5111 - Helots No More - A Case Study of the justice for Janitors Campaign in Los Angeles (18 pages)

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Helots No More - A Case Study of the justice for Janitors Campaign in Los Angeles



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Helots No More - A Case Study of the justice for Janitors Campaign in Los Angeles

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Pages:
18
School:
University of Minnesota- Twin Cities
Course:
Mapl 5111 - Labor Organizing
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From Kate Bronfenbrenner et al Organizing to Win Cornell U Press 1998 Chapter 6 Helots No More A Case Study of the justice for Janitors Campaign in Los Angeles Roger Waldinger Chris Erickson Ruth Milkman Daniel J B Mitchell Abel Valenzuela Kent Wong and Maurice Zeitlin On June 15 1990 striking janitors and their supporters held a peaceful march and demonstration in the tiny Century City district of Los Angeles where Local 399 of SEIU was seeking a union contract for the workers who clean the huge glittering office towers that dominate this part of the city The SEIU s justice for janitors JfJ campaign had been under way in L A for about two years and this was one of many such demonstrations that had been launched over that period But unlike previous demonstrations this time the L A police brutally attacked the marchers seriously wounding several people and causing a pregnant woman to miscarry Although SEIU s organizers initially feared that the police violence might put an end to their effort the demonstration proved to be a turning point in the campaign to unionize the janitors most of whom were immigrants from Mexico and Central America Widespread outrage at the police action both locally and in SEIU offices around the country led International Ser vice Systems ISS the cleaning contractor for nearly all the buildings in Century City to sign a union contract soon afterward in the largest private sector organizing success among Latino immigrants since the United Farm Workers victories nearly two decades earlier Southern California hardly seemed a likely setting for this drama Never as strong as in the northern part of the state organized labor had lost legions of well paid blue collar members in the region in the 1970s and 1980s With the decline of heavy industry first in the civilian sector and 102 later in defense union density had declined sharply in this massive manufacturing center Meanwhile a new world of labor had emerged a bur geoning immigrant population employed in low skilled low paying manufacturing and service jobs For a while it seemed that the advent of this new labor force would still any protest so long as the newcomers compared a minimum wage job in the garment center with an unyielding plot of land in Mexico s central plateau not to mention a visit from El Salvador s death squads employers could count on their workers being quiescent But the tide seems to be turning as militant union activity among new comers in a variety of industries suggests that the days of the immigrant helots are over Emblematic of this shift is the JfJ campaign which success fully reorganized the building services industry ultimately bringing more than eight thousand largely immigrant workers under a union contract in what has become a model for JfJ s national organizing efforts This chapter analyzes the recent growth of janitorial unionism in Los Angeles against the background of the previous history of the rise and decline in unionism in the city s building services industry asking how and why JfJ succeeded in L A and whether its success will last Origins and Early Growth JfJ may be a bright new star on the otherwise dim labor firmament but in many ways organizing janitors today does not differ much from the circumstances under which JfJ s parent organization then called the Building Service Employees International Union BSEIU first emerged in Chicago in 1920 The union s founding members were drawn from society s poorest ranks Then as now building service workers were disproportionately first and second generation Americans and minority workers Ser vice Employees International Union 1992 1 Of course this continuity begs the very question with which this chapter is concerned namely how poor immigrant workers built a successful and enduring organization Historically the phenomenon of organizing immigrants is not an oddity but the labor historiography does not usually suggest that an old line AFL union 1 In addition to the sources cited herein this chapter is based on among other sources a Lexis Nexis search of periodical and other references relevant to the justice for Janitors campaign and the contract cleaning industry the public use microdata samples of the 1980 and 1990 censuses of population and in depth interviews conducted with nine union officials four management spokespersons and four rank and file leaders Interviews lasted from an hour to the equivalent of an entire day and were recorded both in written notes and for the important union interviews on audiotapes that were subsequently transcribed Unless otherwise noted interviews are the source for all quotations 103 like the Building Service Employees would grow by recruiting the dregs as one veteran union official put it cited in Piore 1994 529 Whatever the original impetus to organize the BSEIU took on many of the defining characteristics of the old AFL Among them were high levels of local autonomy on the one hand and a relatively weak underfinanced thinly staffed international on the other The reversal of these characteristics has created the conditions for organizing janitors today Locals were autonomous in part because building services was a local industry the employers were the building owners most of whom were hometown capitalists so that the relevant market had relatively narrow geographic bounds In the 1930s the BSEIU spread beyond Chicago the Depression the catalyst for expansion New York s janitors organized in 1934 San Francisco s followed suit shortly thereafter From that bastion of labor radicalism janitorial unionism was exported to L A just after World War II The newly born Local 399 recruited in house janitors who cleaned downtown buildings housing the entertainment and financial industries as well as movie theaters Starting in the 1950s commercial real estate took on a different owner ship mix as local owners were increasingly replaced by national and even international investors These new owners found it more efficient to purchase cleaning services from a specialized vendor rather than organize a workforce for their diverse and scattered buildings directly The advent of contracting initially had an adverse effect on Local 399 s membership but the structure of the industry enabled the union to recoup its losses As the city grew the union successfully chased after the employers in each of the newer office centers Expansion allowed Local 399 to upgrade conditions significantly and by the late 1960s it had


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