Hoisting brooms and mops, thousands of
low-income workers are walking picket lines and gearing up for
demonstrations across the country to demand higher wages, better
job security and "justice for janitors."
The pressure started building last week when hundreds of
janitors went on strike in Los Angeles, leaving the companies that
clean 70 percent of the county's commercial office space scrambling
to find replacements. And the janitors' union says that was just
On Sunday, a small group of janitors staged a noisy
demonstration in San Diego, shouting "Mucho trabajo, poco dinero"
"Lots of work, little money."
This week, the campaign spreads to New York City, where doormen,
porters and maintenance workers plan to march up Park Avenue to
promote their demands for contract talks with owners of 3,000
residential buildings. Their strike deadline is April 20.
"It's been the combined disrespect at the workplace and the
bargaining table that led us to do this," said Mary Grillo,
executive director of Service Employees International Union Local
2028 in San Diego.
Over the next few months, maintenance workers, maids and other
SEIU members plan demonstrations in Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle and
other major cities where contracts expire this year.
In Chicago, 125 janitors planned to begin a hunger strike Monday
to protest their lack of health benefits. The contract for janitors
in Chicago suburbs expired Sunday; the contract for janitors in the
city will expire on Saturday.
The timing is no coincidence. The SEIU set out five years ago to
negotiate contracts around the country that would expire within
months of each other to combine the clout of more than 100,000
That kind of thinking, combined with some of the most aggressive
bargaining and recruiting tactics in organized labor, has made the
1.3 million-member union one of the fastest-growing and powerful in
In 1985, the then-struggling union started a program called
"Justice for Janitors" under the leadership of John Sweeney, who
later became president of the AFL-CIO. Organizing efforts were
aimed at the fringes of the work force. It spent more money than
most unions on organizing, absorbed independent unions, and staged
demonstrations to draw public attention and rally union loyalists.
"Their organizing tends to be among marginalized workers,"
said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark
University in Worcester, Mass. "They also tend to emphasize
justice, dignity and respect. Instead of saying, 'We're going to
get you tremendous wage increases,' they say, 'We're going to get
you bargaining agreements that will give you your fair share of
That message has attracted thousands of workers.
In the cities where it has locals, the union says it represents
up to 90 percent of all service workers. In Washington, D.C., union
membership went from 40 percent to 77 percent over the past five
years. Over an 18-month period in 1988, the union targeted the
Denver suburbs and went from no presence to representing more than
75 percent of the area's service workers, according to union
Workers in Washington blocked the Roosevelt Bridge over the
Potomac River in 1996 to call for higher wages for custodial
In Los Angeles, the union became a major force in 1990, when its
attempt to organize janitors in the Century City district turned
into a bloody confrontation with police. About two dozen
demonstrators were injured and 40 were arrested. Soon after, the
union won the right to represent workers. June 15 is now celebrated
as "Justice for Janitors Day."
The city has about 8,500 janitors who work for 18 cleaning
contractors handling most of the commercial properties in Los
Angeles. The union wants $1-an-hour raises for the next three years
the average hourly wage is now $6.90. Contractors offered a
one-year wage freeze, then 40-cent-an-hour raises for two years.