On Friday, April 7, I came upon one method of increasing the income of the working poor that, I confess, had never even occurred to me. The janitors of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877, embroiled in a countywide strike, were marching down Wilshire Boulevard from downtown Los Angeles to tony Century City, roughly an eight-mile walk. Ten years earlier, another such march had culminated in one of the LAPD's periodic riots, when police set upon the marchers in Century City, beating and injuring scores. This time L.A.'s city attorney was in the parade's front row, flanked by a dozen other elected officials, Jesse Jackson, and a host of ministers, priests, and rabbis. But that wasn't all that was different about this march.
As the janitors left downtown, the people on the sidewalks--few of whom had known in advance about the march--started giving them a thumbs-up sign. After a couple of miles, the sidewalk passersby weren't just signaling their support; they were cheering. Then, as the march reached Beverly Hills, people on the sidewalk--first one, then a couple, then a bunch--did something I'd never seen. They darted into the street and handed the janitors cash. Spontaneous redistribution--something never before noted in any recorded history of Los Angeles.
Seventeen days later, L.A.'s janitors won themselves a considerable nonspontaneous redistribution: a wage increase of about 26 percent, spread over the next three years. The janitors who work at either end of their April 7 march--downtown or in Century City, areas almost entirely unionized-- will see their hourly pay rise from just under $8 to just over $10. (At that rate, it's possible that one parent in a two-working-parent family could afford to work just one job--and actually get some time with his or her kids.) Janitors in other, less unionized parts of town will see an even greater percentage increase.
This, of course, was the far greater miracle: that a union 98 percent of whose members are immigrants--80 percent Central Americans, 55 percent women, and all of them poor--could wrest this kind of settlement from the nation's largest building service contractors and real estate investors. The settlement is a tribute to the spirit and tenacity of the janitors themselves, to the cohesiveness of the L.A. labor movement, and to the manifest strategic smarts of the international union to which the janitors belong, the SEIU. The settlement, so to speak, is the result of a three-level exceptionalism: the local, the central labor council, and the international are each about as good as it gets in the American labor movement today.
From which follows a depressing corollary: The vast majority of American unions, at all levels, have yet to make a dent in the growing problem of low-wage work. Unionizing the workers in easily relocatable sweatshops, for instance, has proven all but impossible. In industries that can't flee-- service, transport, health care, and tourism--unionizing the work force has been possible, but only by dint of extraordinary efforts.
Since 1995, when John Sweeney won the presidency of the AFL-CIO on a platform that emphasized organizing above all else, a number of major internationals have done just that--and have genuine membership growth to show for it. Unfortunately, that number is roughly 10 out of the 68 unions that belong to the federation.
Some among the Organizing Ten have focused their efforts on low-wage workers. The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!) has had major breakthroughs in the organizing of textile and nursing home workers; the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union has won excellent contracts for previously low-wage hotel employees; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has launched a major drive to organize Head Start workers. By every measure, though, the union with the greatest success at organizing low-wage workers is the SEIU. In recent years, the Service Employees have unionized well over 100,000 home health care workers and nursing home workers. It is currently waging campaigns to organize security screeners at airports, many of whom work at the minimum wage.
But the SEIU's signature campaign has been its Justice for Janitors effort. Initiated in 1985 during John Sweeney's tenure as SEIU president, J for J has become known throughout the country as one of the most noisy, rambunctious, disruptive--and successful--efforts both to organize and win raises for workers at or near the bottom of the economy. Indeed, one such disruption--a rush-hour sit-down blocking one of the bridges across the Potomac, pulled off under the very noses of the police detail assigned to guard the bridge--became a major point of contention between Sweeney and Tom Donahue, who was Sweeney's opponent during the 1995 campaign for the AFL-CIO presidency. The role of labor, Donahue insisted, was to build bridges, not block them. Sweeney countered that he'd built as many bridges as anyone in the labor movement, but there was a time to block bridges, too: when management was recalcitrant. It wasn't nice--it infuriated motorists--but then, the janitors have never depended on the kindness of strangers. More than any other union, the SEIU--under both Sweeney and his successor Andy Stern--has understood that the only real power of the poor is the power to disrupt. And no other union has channeled that disruption in so brilliant and productive a way.
A number of the SEIU's campaigns to organize low-income workers, of course, have yet to yield anything, and the gains the union has won at the table for many of the low-wage workers it has organized have been modest. But the union has also known some sterling successes, and the campaign that the L.A. janitors waged this spring stands out as one of those rare moments in contemporary unionism when virtually everything clicked. It's an object lesson in how a union can transform the living standards, and the lives, of the working poor. But it's also an illustration of just how daunting that task really is.
At first glance, the very idea that L.A.'s janitors could sustain and win a strike seemed preposterous. With an average hourly wage of $7.20, they were in no position to have socked away a rainy-day fund. The fact that they were spread across roughly 900 different work sites meant that bonding together as an effective union was anything but easy; it also made setting up effective picket lines very difficult. (The local has 8,500 members.) The fragmented and byzantine structure of the industry also complicated matters greatly, compelling the union to negotiate up front with 18 different building service contractors while conducting back-channel discussions with a like number of building owners. In this kind of structure, the least wealthy, or most stingy, service contractor could easily gum up a settlement.
The primary asset the janitors brought to their strike, of course, the sine qua non of their victory, was their local, which has taken them a dozen years to rebuild to a position of strength. Up until 1983-1984, Los Angeles, like most nonsouthern U.S. cities, had a unionized janitorial work force (which in Los Angeles was heavily black). In 1983 the local signed a contract with the service contractors providing its members with an hourly wage of $7.32.
At the same time, thousands of Central Americans began moving to Los Angeles, many fleeing the U.S.-backed wars that were raging in their homelands. Building service contractors began discharging their unionized workers and hiring refugees. No other American city experienced quite so wholesale a substitution of one work force for another. None of L.A.'s new janitors made anything like $7.32 an hour. Instead, they made the federal minimum wage--then $3.35 an hour, just 44 percent of the rate set by the union contract. "Almost immediately after the ink was dry on the contract," says Jono Shaffer, who came to L.A. to start up Justice for Janitors a few years later, "the union had to go into renegotiations, dropping wages just to keep some members in the buildings." From 5,000 members in 1978, the local shrank to 1,800 in 1985.
Throughout the mid-1980s, many of SEIU's janitorial locals were under assault from contractors either able to exploit a changing work force or just indulging in the rampant union-busting of the time. In 1985 the union hastily assembled its first, impromptu Justice for Janitors campaign in Pittsburgh, where management was trying to win major givebacks. In 1986 SEIU decided to shore up its position in building services by making J for J a national--and proactive rather than reactive--campaign. After an initial victory in Denver, J for J came to Los Angeles in 1988.
Reorganizing the L.A. local proved particularly arduous. "In a sense," Shaffer recalls, "the new local began on the Olympic Boulevard bus from Century City [home to many high-rises] to Pico Union [home to many janitors], the 2:30 a.m. bus. It was the janitors' private bus; there sure wasn't anyone else on it, and it was the one place where they were together and could talk freely about their work."
By the early 1990s, the janitors had unionized Century City, strengthened their position in downtown, and formed a distinct, statewide janitors' local. With accomplished J for J organizer Mike Garcia as its new president, the local plunged into a series of campaigns organizing janitors in L.A.'s numerous suburbs and edge cities, and persuading the building contractors to recognize the union and agree to the terms of its L.A. master contract. Characteristically, these campaigns combined on-site strikes; pressure from local pols, clerics, and community groups; and the occasional intervention of the buildings' owners on the janitors' behalf. The pay scale for these newer recruits, however, lagged behind that in the downtown area and in Century City. This is a common pattern among janitors' locals, where suburban membership, like suburban high-rises, tends to be newer and less dense than in downtown areas.
What It Takes to Organize
Simply by setting up J for J, Sweeney was going where most of the rest of American labor feared to tread. The campaign required SEIU to make alliances with community groups and hire a slew of young organizers off campuses and from community-based organizations. This was far from common practice at the time because most unions viewed such groups and organizers as too radical or because organizing was just not a union priority, or for both reasons.
The L.A. janitors' local got more than its share of such organizers, however. Together with members who'd been politically active in their homelands and had led the fight to create a distinct janitors' local, they set about building a union that involved the maximum number of members in its work and decision making (a practice at which HERE, the hotel and restaurant union, has also excelled). Over the past five years, as the local grew to represent 70 percent of the janitorial work force in L.A.'s class-A office properties, members learned to represent one another in grievances and to lead meetings; they also mastered the arcane structure of their industry. Late this March, with their contract about to expire and talks with employers at an impasse, the union convened a meeting of its 100 or so stewards. There, says Triana Silton, the staffer in charge of J for J in Los Angeles, the union's leaders told the stewards, "If we go out, you folks will have to run the strike." Which, the stewards pledged, they would.
Still, any field commander about to go into battle has to feel a little nervous, and a week before the strike began, Silton called her predecessor Shaffer. "She wanted reassurance that we weren't about to embark on a countywide strike [Los Angeles is by far the most populous county in the United States] with 25 people," says Shaffer. "I told her what she knew but wanted to hear anyway: We'd have a thousand." And so they did.
By day, as the newscast helicopters hovered overhead, the janitors (at times numbering well over 1,000) marched down L.A.'s boulevards and threw together rallies with the speed and mobility of Patton's Third Army. (On one occasion, they rustled up 500 members and half of L.A.'s city council on three hours' notice so that Ted Kennedy, passing through town, could endorse the strike.) At sunset, the real work of the strike began as members dispersed to the myriad of office buildings around town. "With so many buildings out, you couldn't possibly have staff at more than a handful," Shaffer says. "At most work sites, the members ran the strike and the picket line and the scab patrols."
In the end, the union pulled roughly half its members onto the streets in its effort to shut down the cleanup of L.A.'s office buildings. The net the janitors strung had plenty of holes in it, but the nighttime cleanings in many of the city's most prominent buildings were incomplete and haphazard, when they happened at all.
Local 1877 had had plenty of practice mobilizing its members. In a city where labor has played the decisive role in election after election over the past four years, the janitors were the most politically active union in town. "In the election of November '98," says local president Garcia, "we turned out for 1,500 shifts [a shift means walking a precinct or working a phone bank]--more than any union." The local worked under the aegis of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, whose operation focuses on turning out both union members and new immigrant voters. "For this," says the group's Executive Secretary-Treasurer Miguel Contreras, "the janitors are critical. Their members get home from their jobs at 4:00 a.m., and show up for a precinct walk at 7:00 a.m."
With the janitors as its shock troops, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor has become the election day powerhouse of L.A. politics. Since Contreras assumed its leadership in 1996, the federation has intervened in 17 district races--all hotly contested, at all levels of government--and has prevailed in 16 of them.
The federation brought its own distinct clout to the janitors' strike; combined with the janitors' own efforts, it's no mystery why Local 1877 went into the strike with a statement of support from 48 L.A.-area elected officials or, as the strike unfolded, why it won further statements of support from the county supervisors, both houses of the state legislature, a unanimous city council, and Republican Mayor Richard Riordan. Not since the 1994 earthquake had so many L.A. electeds come together for the same cause.
The intervention that many of these officials made on the janitors' behalf was anything but casual: Councilmembers were arrested for civil disobedience; assembly members sat on the janitors' side of the table during bargaining sessions; congressmen addressed rallies; Ted Kennedy, Dianne Feinstein, and Al Gore came to town and spoke for their cause. Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, and the mayor publicly and privately pressured their building-owner buddies to settle.
One factor in generating such singular solidarity among the electeds was apparent on the day of the janitors' march, at the post-primary breakfast that the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor hosted for pols it had helped in the previous month's primary. The breakfast was held in a hotel along the janitors' parade route, so the assembled pols could come outside and bless the janitors as they passed. However, the absence of one pol--nine-term Congressman Marty Martinez--was felt more than the presence of all the others.
In the March primary, the federation had broken with all precedent to oppose Martinez's re-election. Martinez had a career 90 percent AFL-CIO voting record, but he was the most lackadaisical of members, and, worse, he had swapped his vote to the White House (for a freeway extension) during the 1997 fight over fast track, neglecting to notify the unions he was about to switch sides. When state senator Hilda Solis, a stellar pro-labor legislator with wide support, challenged Martinez, the federation endorsed her and poured in an army of volunteers, the greatest number of whom came from the janitors. Solis clobbered Martinez, 69 to 31 percent--and the ghost of poor Marty hung over the breakfast as a grim reminder to all the electeds of the fate that might await them if they spurned the unions' cause.
Adding oomph to the janitors' clout was just one of the federation's endeavors on the janitors' behalf. This year, contracts expire for 300,000 of the 800,000 union members whose locals are federation affiliates, and the federation has turned the local labor movement into a kind of mutual-aid society. Even before the janitors' strike began, it convened a rally of 10,000 members from all the different unions whose contracts were up, and almost all these unions were to provide the janitors with money, food, and bodies in the weeks ahead. Locals that had long been indifferent to such struggles honored the janitors' picket lines this time around. The operating engineers--who maintain elevators, air conditioning systems, and such in office buildings all across town--offered full pay from their own strike fund to any members who didn't cross the janitors' lines. Before the strike, the operating engineers had never given any indication that they cared whether the janitors lived or died.
Solidarity on a Bigger Stage
Nor was the janitors' simply a local strike. The chief building maintenance contractors they were fighting were national, even global, corporations. The companies, Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), and pension funds that owned L.A.'s high-rises owned high-rises all across the nation. And accordingly, the janitors' international union had decided to turn their strike into a national one.
What the SEIU had done was line up the expiration dates of its janitorial contracts in most major cities so that, as nearly as possible, they would coincide or at least follow one another in close succession. The L.A. janitors walked first, but within two weeks they were followed by the janitors in Chicago and San Diego, at the same time that New York's janitors settled without a strike. One week after the L.A. strike ended, janitors were slated to strike in Cleveland, and so it goes, one city after another, through October.
The union is merely following the consolidation of the industry. In the 1980s, save in those cities where the unions were exceptionally strong (New York, San Francisco, downtown Chicago), building owners created a protective shield behind which they could deny all responsibility for the union-busting of the Reagan years. They handed over the task of hiring, firing, supervising, and paying the janitors to the hitherto small-scale and local building service industry. (The amounts these contractors agreed to pay the janitors, however, still had to be cleared with the building owners.) In short order, these contractors grew mightily, and soon the industry came to be dominated by such nationwide companies as American Building Maintenance (ABM) and OneSource (until relatively recently, a Danish-based conglomerate called ISS/DESCO Services).
Moreover, the ownership of class-A office properties has also been consolidated in recent years. In the 1980s, most of downtown L.A.'s high-rises were owned by foreign (chiefly Japanese) investors. Today, the city's choice properties are owned primarily by REITs and pension funds--the same REITs and pension funds that own choice properties throughout the nation. According to an April survey in the Los Angeles Business Journal, 51 percent of the class-A property on L.A.'s west side--that is, the highest-rent buildings in all of Los Angeles--was owned by pension funds, and another 21 percent by REITs. Moreover, according to figures compiled by the SEIU, the largest class-A property owner in southern California is also the largest in the United States--Chicago-based Equity Investments, which owns 77 million square feet across the country. Another major L.A. real estate owner, Warren "Ned" Spiecker, has 41 million square feet of office property on the West Coast.
When L.A.'s janitors struck, then, SEIU leaders were already talking with these owners and contractors on a national level. "We met with ABM, OneSource, Equity, the major owners in New York and L.A. prior to the contract expirations," says SEIU president Andy Stern. "We made clear that these were integrated, though not common, negotiations. When we sat down with owners and contractors in Chicago or L.A.," Stern continues, "they understood that this wasn't simply a discussion about Chicago or L.A."
So did SEIU's janitors all across the nation. As the date for the first contract expiration neared, the international set up a series of teleconferences among members in different cities, members of one local flew across the country to sit in at the bargaining sessions of another local, and a nationwide solidarity developed among the janitors. (Solidarity is the concept that unions most frequently invoke and most seldom cultivate.) It was this cross-city bond that underlay the threat that the international's leaders conveyed to the owners and contractors: If the local on strike in L.A. against ABM, say, sent one picket to a building cleaned by ABM in New York, the New York janitors wouldn't clean the building. By the final week of the L.A. strike, ratcheting up the pressure, SEIU put this plan into action. "Members from 1877 [the L.A. local] flew to Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, San Jose, and their pickets were honored," says SEIU Building Service Director Stephen Lerner. "We just did a couple of buildings in each city for one night, but we planned to escalate considerably if the strike had to go into its fourth week."
The international's threat to the nationwide owners and employers worked because, on the management side of the table, size matters. The building owners--for whom the janitors' wages are just a small part of their overall expenses--can bring pressure on the contractors, from whom janitors' wages take a bigger bite. This is why the SEIU prefers to negotiate directly with the owners, which it's able to do only in the cities where it's strongest.
In Los Angeles, Stern says, "large numbers of the owners were much more interested in settling--and settling quickly--than the contractors." Indeed, in the final negotiations, the major building owners jointly threatened the contractors by suggesting they weren't really indispensable to performance of janitorial work. On the Thursday before the strike settled, says Rob Maguire, one of L.A.'s mega-owners, "we told them that it had to be finished by Monday and that we were prepared to enter into a separate agreement with the union if they didn't get it done."
Where buildings were owned by pension funds--many of them directed by trustees selected by the public-sector unions whose funds they invest--the international's involvement was even more direct, if less conspicuous. The two largest pension funds in the United States are CalPERS and CalSTIRS, for California's public employees and its teachers. The dominant public employee union in California happens to be the SEIU. "Clearly, a lot of calls were made by CalPERS and CalSTIRS," says one source close to the negotiations.
One other service that the SEIU performed for the janitors--and here, the help came more from a consortium of California locals than from the international--was to sponsor prestrike polling and focus groups to assist 1877, and other SEIU locals facing the prospect of a strike, in honing their message. Truth be told, though, the janitors didn't need much help. From the moment they took to the streets, they plainly struck a nerve.
The most astonishing sight in the janitors' strike--and I saw it repeatedly--was of motorists stuck in traffic for 15 or 20 minutes as the janitors marched across an intersection. Time and again, drivers got out of their cars and shook their fists--not in anger, but in clamorous support.
The strike had two immediate effects on the city. First, it pushed the reality of low-wage work smack into everyone's face. (Even L.A.'s TV newscasts--the most substance-free in the land--were compelled to cover the janitors' daily marches and mention the wage rates at which they worked.) Second, the janitors provided the city with its first plausible and visible solution for poverty-wage work: unionization. In middle-class L.A., let alone in upwards-of-middle-class L.A., I've not detected any overwhelming public sentiment to unionize low-wage workers. But the janitors forced Los Angeles to confront its transformation into the national capital of low-wage work on a less theoretical level. Behind the spontaneous cash donations in the streets of Beverly Hills was not only guilt about such manifest poverty in the midst of such manifest plenty, but also a kind of civic relief: At last, somebody was doing something about what Los Angeles had become--a city with a vanishing middle class and an explosion in the number of Angelenos at work for poverty-level wages.
For affluent Los Angeles, then, the strike produced an altogether unanticipated wave of--let's call it civic improvement, as Charles Dickens would define civic improvement. The cardinal, whose record of support for working-class struggle has been mixed, but who performed a special Mass for the janitors and called his building-owner parishioners on their behalf, was never truer to the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. The mayor, whose record of support for working-class struggle has been way more mixed than the cardinal's, was never more attentive to his city's deepest dilemma. The inhabitants of this first world metropolis, whose normal level of economic and political consciousness ranges from "false" to "un," were never more sensitive to, and willing to remedy, the plight of those who live there at near-third world wages.
But what has the strike meant to the other Los Angeles, from which the janitors come? How, if at all, has it altered the prospects for organizing?
Los Angeles may be one of the nation's most diverse metropolises, but what happened to the demographics of building maintenance in the 1980s happened to virtually all of blue-collar Los Angeles. At the turn of the century, the Los Angeles working class is almost entirely Latino. And of Latinos' affinity for unions, there can be no doubt (most particularly in Los Angeles, where labor is Latino-led and the most visible locals are Latino-dominated). Proposition 226, the 1998 initiative that would have greatly curtailed unions' political activity, was rejected by state Latino voters by a 75 to 25 percent margin. Black voters didn't reject it that decisively, nor did union members.
But if pro-union sentiment were sufficient to create a unionized workplace, the rate of unionization in the United States would be closer to one-third than its current 14 percent. To the nonunion sector of the L.A. working class (that is, virtually all of it), the janitors' strike can be viewed in two ways. "This strike can both scare immigrants and inspire them," says Maria Elena Durazo, leader of the only local union in town (HERE Local 11) with a record of immigrant organizing, collective bargaining, and political participation comparable to the janitors'. "It can be daunting. It all depends on what the respective unions do in their industries. Do we do the day-to-day work of challenging and developing immigrant workers [to become activists and leaders] in their workplaces? If we don't, the strike on its own won't inspire a whole spontaneous movement. It takes a particular kind of union, with tough organizers and a tough organizing program."
The SEIU's commitment to such "tough" organizing is unrivaled in the labor movement. When Sweeney was president, the union was spending nearly a third of its budget on organizing, at a time when the average for almost every other union was about 2 percent. Under Stern the cut for organizing has risen to 47 percent, requiring the international to reduce, and in a few cases eliminate, some of its departments. Even among the Organizing Ten, it's only in the SEIU that the organizers clearly outnumber everyone else on staff. The international has also set targets for its locals: In the first year of the program, it encouraged them to spend 10 percent of their resources on organizing; in the second year, 15 percent; in the third year, 20 percent. It also provided locals with the assistance to make that transition.
The Service Employees' leaders are still raising the ante. At its upcoming convention, the SEIU will consider a proposal for a dues increase to establish new nationwide funds for organizing and bargaining in specific sectors. "The next time the building service contracts come up, in 2003, imagine what we could do if we had $10 million to supplement what the locals have set aside," says Stern. "Imagine what it could mean for organizing, too. This nationwide approach has long been common for industrial unions, but the strategy can also be applied to Hilton and Starwood [hotels], to hospital chains and nursing home chains, and to building services."
This is exactly the kind of proposal that most unions have tended to avoid, at least since Walter Reuther's day. It asks the members to pay more today, or give up a level of servicing to which they're accustomed, for a program that may produce more organizing--and, thus, greater union density in their sector or locale and, thus, maybe, better wage settlements--in the future. John Wilhelm won wide acceptance for this kind of trade-off when he ran the HERE local in Las Vegas, as it grew from 15,000 members to nearly 60,000. But it's relatively easy to understand concepts like union density and its relation to wage scales in a one-industry town surrounded by 300 miles of desert. The SEIU's members are being asked to make such a trade-off when things like union density and its relation to wages are harder to see. The union leaders figure that the success of the newly coordinated janitor strikes will help them make their point.
Outside the SEIU, HERE, UNITE!, and a handful of other unions, however, this level of commitment to and strategic thinking about organizing is not yet evident. Over the past half-decade in Los Angeles, organizing drives have fizzled for lack of the kind of corporate strategy that the SEIU brought to its building service division, or for failure of long-established locals to activate their members in organizing new ones.
Organizing the New Labor Force
Meanwhile, the janitor and hotel worker unions are beginning to assume within L.A.'s immigrant community the kind of full-service tribune role that the garment unions played in the immigrant communities of New York in the early twentieth century. Indeed, merely to meet their members' needs, these unions cannot bargain simply for wages and benefits. HERE Local 11 won a groundbreaking provision in its last contract that gives hotel workers a full year to return to their jobs with their seniority intact in the event that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) deports them, and that requires the hotel to re-employ them if they can come back within a two-year period. The janitors won a similar, though considerably more modest, provision in their new contract.
Both the SEIU and HERE took the lead in persuading the national AFL-CIO earlier this year to rescind its long-standing support for sanctions against businesses that employ undocumented immigrants. The AFL-CIO is now conducting a series of hearings around the country on the question of whether there should be a new amnesty for illegals, and the L.A. federation has pledged to turn out a crowd of 5,000, including the cardinal, when the national federation brings its road-show to town in June. Amnesty is a very practical concern for virtually all unions that organize since the rank-and-file leaders of their drives--not just in Los Angeles, and not only among janitors--are increasingly immigrants, whom, increasingly, the INS is deporting. But amnesty's appeal reaches far beyond the unions' ranks, and Mike Garcia took the occasion of the janitors' contract ratification vote--covered by a swarm of Spanishlanguage newscasts and newspapers--to announce that the union's next major battle would be for the new amnesty.
The strike has confirmed a new order in the political firmament of Latino California. The janitors, in tandem with the hotel workers, have supplanted the United Farm Workers (UFW) as the political powerhouse and moral beacon of local Latino politics. Twenty-five years ago, the UFW and its allies walked more precincts in Latino L.A. than anyone else, cultivated the support of governors and senators, and came to symbolize the entire Latino (in those days, it was "Chicano") cause. Today, it's the janitors who walk the most precincts, who've amassed the broadest political backing, who've caught the imagination and won the allegiance of this new, larger immigrant community--that is, of L.A.'s working class. One index of this: By the strike's second week, people were buying the janitors' signature red T-shirts off their backs; by the third week, knockoffs of the T-shirts began popping up in the garment district. Another index: Throughout the strike, L.A.'s more nationalistic Latino officials, whose candidates the janitors have opposed and defeated in election after election, nonetheless felt compelled to come to the janitors' rallies. To have been missing in action, or deemed insufficiently pro-janitor, would have amounted to political suicide.
Such is the decay of the laws protecting organizing, and of most unions' capacity to organize, that the janitors' stunning success is no guarantee that organizing in Los Angeles will pick up--much less that the silver bullet has been found for the travails of the city's low-wage earners. Then again, my LA Weekly colleague Joseph Trevino tells me he stopped by a meeting in the Latino neighborhood of Lincoln Heights about a week after the strike ended. Citizens for a Better Environment, a group that organizes in L.A.'s nonwhite working-class communities, had convened the meeting to build support for a campaign to expose the neighborhood's high rates of cancer. And as the meeting went on, as the participants grew more animated, the talk was increasingly of the janitors, some of whom lived right down the block: of the dedication they'd shown, the example they'd provided, the standard they'd set for the entire community. Abruptly, the spirit of the meeting was that of the janitors' battle cry, that old UFW slogan they had made credible for a new generation: Sí, se puede (Yes, we can do it). Maybe they can. ¤