the janitors' strike, the dynamic presence of the rank and file
helped create an incredible outpouring of public support.
Credit: Steve Kagan
The Union Difference
point the way out of poverty
By David Moberg
rush hour one morning in late April, 38-year-old Augusto Cuevas, wearing
his red "Justice for Janitors" T-shirt, sat down in the middle of a busy
intersection in suburban Chicago, blocking traffic for two hours before
police arrested him and 50 fellow members of the Service Employees International
Union (SEIU). Later that day, the companies that clean commercial and
high-tech office buildings in the booming "edge cities" outside Chicago
returned to the bargaining table for the first time in 10 days and agreed
to boost janitors' compensation by a dramatic 44 percent over three years.
By the final year, Cuevas and his wife-also a janitor-will have family
health insurance and each get paid $8 an hour, up from $6.65.
This victory-as in other recent SEIU triumphs in Los Angeles, San Diego
and Cleveland-wouldn't have happened without the courage and zeal of workers
like Cuevas, a recent immigrant from Mexico. A decade ago, most union
leaders saw such immigrants as passive, frightened and unorganizable.
Now many envision them as the militant heart of a renewed labor movement.
"We got to do whatever we got to do to try to get our rights and insurance,"
said Cuevas, shortly after he was released by police. "Without insurance,
we don't see any future for our families."
The janitors' struggle highlights an important dimension of poverty in
the United States. In big cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco,
nearly 90 percent of janitors in major office buildings have been organized
for many years, and their jobs provide health insurance, pensions and
a decent, basic family income of nearly $25,000 a year. But until recently,
in cities like Los Angeles or in new suburban growth areas, janitors rarely
had insurance and earned wages well below $8.20 an hour, the poverty line
for a family of four. Both groups did much the same work, often for the
same national companies. The union made the difference, lifting hardworking
but unskilled workers out of poverty.
there were about 28 million workers, 27 percent of the work force, who
earned wages under $8 an hour. Few of them-estimates run around 6 percent-belong
to unions. Unions have been weak in the service and retail sectors that
together account for two-thirds of low-wage employment, and labor leaders
often believed that low-wage workers were too difficult to organize, despite
their abundant grievances. Now some of the best organizing unions-such
as SEIU, HERE (hotel workers), AFSCME (public workers), UNITE (needle
trades) and the UFW (farm workers)-focus much of their efforts on low-wage
workers. In recent years, these unions have scored wins with home health
care aides, nursing home employees, laundry workers, hotel room cleaning
staffs, child care workers and airport baggage handlers.
Low-wage work isn't monolithic: most involves limited skills, but nearly
40 percent of low-wage workers have some college education. Many better
skilled but poorly paid workers-child care and health care workers and
graduate teaching assistants, for example-are now assertively organizing.
While many low-wage organizing campaigns mobilize recent immigrants and
minorities, nearly two-thirds of low-wage workers are white; though disproportionately
young, 40 percent of low-wage workers are more than 35 years old.
All these jobs have one main thing in common: They don't pay well. That's
partly because the workers who hold them lack market power and can be
easily replaced. Increasingly, they are contingent workers-part time,
temporary or supposedly independent contractors-or they may work for a
subcontractor, while another powerful company holds the purse strings.
The building owners, for example, set the rates for cleaning contractors,
who employ the janitors. The contractors compete viciously for corporate
crumbs and therefore are highly motivated to fight unionization. In many
cases, from trash haulers to day care workers, government holds the purse
strings, either hiring contractors or providing funds to reimburse all
or part of workers' wages.
These masked employer relationships are only part of the problem. "The
primary obstacle to organizing low-wage workers is how unstable the jobs
are," says Allison Porter, outgoing director of the AFL-CIO Organizing
Institute. Employers often are huge, deep-pocketed companies with widely
dispersed sites, like McDonald's or Wal-Mart, which overwhelm isolated
efforts with their anti-union tactics but are too big to organize easily
on a national scale. In manufacturing, employers routinely threaten to
move-and actually relocate-out of the country to avoid a union and find
even lower wages.
Further, low-wage workers often feel little attachment to their employers:
They vote with their feet about discontent, churning through a series
of rotten jobs. At the same time, they may be living on the edge financially
and fearful of losing what little they have. David Chu, director of strategic
research at the AFL-CIO, says that the biggest issue in unionizing low-wage
workers is "whether you can organize and get them a contract that makes
a difference in their lives."
strikes demonstrate that the power to make such a difference starts with
strategy. After clawing its way back over the past 15 years to represent
more than 70 percent of janitors in several regions, SEIU carefully planned
its contracts to expire near the same time this year. This strategy took
into account both the importance of local building service markets and
the growing power of national cleaning firms and realty companies. The
key to both the organizing and the strikes this year, however, was educating
and mobilizing union members. The disruptions-both at the workplace, reinforced
by unionized building engineers and truckers, and in the community, by
blocking highways-created a broader crisis. The union then used community
and political allies to increase pressure on both building owners and
The battle was fought on favorable political terrain: Low unemployment
gave workers confidence and clout, and the deepening gulf between the
glittering rich techno-elites and the impoverished, hardworking immigrants-especially
in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley-provided workers with the moral high
ground. "There was a surprising nerve struck by the gross unfairness of
people making $6.80 an hour in Los Angeles," says Stephen Lerner of SEIU.
"There was no way to justify it. The strike was incredibly visible and
disruptive. It's not an image a lot of cities want, of workers in poverty
amid incredible wealth."
Five years ago, the union started training rank-and-file leaders on how
to turn the inequity of their jobs into social power. "We got them excited
about their union," says Mike Garcia, president of the 22,000-member janitor
local that stretches from Los Angeles to Sacramento. "We wanted to plug
in our members every step of the way, in politics, in leadership development
and understanding the industry. They feel the union is theirs to operate
and make decisions. When the strike came, they were ready."
The dynamic presence of the members helped create an incredible outpouring
of public support, but it also reminded politicians of the growing importance
of Latino voters, often mobilized for critical elections by the union.
"You need to think creatively and strategically," Garcia says. "You can't
be afraid to take risks. Our decision to move the question of the disparity
between the rich and poor is the key one. The general public is responsive
to that kind of campaign. You can't be just locked in battle with the
employer and scabs, but have to think of what other pressure you can build,
to know their business and their weaknesses."
The campaign for low-wage workers succeeds when it is broadly political
and unflinchingly moral. Unions have learned to reach out to allies in
churches and the community in campaigns to require businesses with government
contracts or subsidies to pay a "living wage," for example. HERE has used
local allies to demand that new, publicly subsidized hotels and convention
centers not be antagonistic to unions. In its Silicon Valley contract
campaign, janitors hope to forge a relationship with high-tech companies
not only to win a healthy contract, but also to build affordable housing-without
which even the best contract will be inadequate. A new coalition of more
than 40 worker advocacy groups and unions, the National Association for
Fair Employment, will be fighting for everything from legal restrictions
on abuse of independent contractors to voluntary codes of conduct for
temporary employment agencies.
Yet in the end, argues organizing consultant Richard Bensinger, "the only
way to prove commitment [to low wage and immigrant workers] is to organize
them. Legislative or policy positions don't get it done. We have to put
money, clout and organizers where the rhetoric is." The janitors' success
in Los Angeles has already brought new organizing and contract victories
for other low-wage Angelenos. Their example may yet inspire more of the
militant, member-oriented unionism that is proving the fight against poverty
may not be futile after all.
David Moberg is a senior
editor of In These Times.
In These Times ©
Vol. 24, No. 14