Spreading janitor strike targets workers on the fringes

Demonstrations across the country show how labor is reaching out to those passed over by the New Economy.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's a scene that will become commonplace in cities across America from now through the fall: Thousands of protesters marching, with brooms and picket signs raised high.

"Justice for Janitors," reads one.

"Mucho trabajo, poco dinero" ("Lots of work, little money"), declares another.

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The striking janitors are already here impacting the daily routines of 70 percent of the offices in Los Angeles. Doormen and elevator operators in New York marched down Park Avenue yesterday, and Chicago workers plan to follow up a two-day hunger strike with demonstrations today.

Within a few months, the protests are set to spread from California's Silicon Valley to Hartford, Conn. They are a sign of how those who feel left out by the prosperity of the New Economy are now banding together to demand a larger share.

In turn, these members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) - the fastest-growing union in the US - are playing a key role in the nascent revitalization of the American labor movement.

"This fight represents a reshaping of the traditional union mission in going after not just job protections,... but in fighting for justice and dignity for those being denied their share of the new prosperity," says Gary Chaison, an industrial-relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "If labor is going to revitalize itself, it is going to have to find ways to appeal to workers on the fringes as well as those in higher-end jobs."

These protests have roots in the "Justice for Janitors" program, a movement begun in 1985 by John Sweeney, who later became the president of the AFL-CIO. It reached out to those often passed over by unions. With an eye toward the future, the SEIU in 1995 negotiated contracts around the country so that they would all expire this year within months of each other. The idea: combine the activity of more than 100,000 affected workers at once.

"The commercial real estate industry and cleaning contractors have been consolidating their power for years, so we knew we had to consolidate our strength as well to fight them back," says Stephen Lerner, head of the SEIU's Building Services Division in Washington.

The demonstration here in front of a towering high-rise in Universal City comes after a week of larger parades and vigils across Los Angeles.

The 8,500 members of SEIU local union 1877 are demanding a $1-per-hour raise each year for three years. Elsewhere in the US, the demands are slightly different, depending on the city, but they also center on earning a living wage and getting health benefits. In general, yearly salaries run about $14,000 to $17,000.

"I'm working full time, but don't make enough to feed my family," says picketer Manny Garza, a Mexican immigrant who cleans buildings for a local contractor.

For organizers, this is not acceptable. "There is a supreme irony in this era of prosperity ... that tens of thousands of people can work full time and not make enough to feed their families," says Lisa Hubbard, spokeswoman for Local 1877.

Reagan-era anti-union measures and the recession of the early 1990s played their part in keeping wages low, but there have been other factors. Competition from non-union, illegal immigrants in many parts of the country, and the rise of highly fluctuating, short-term jobs have given employers more leverage over low-skilled workers.

Moreover, analysts say, building-maintenance contracts are now largely handled by corporations based in distant cities, which means that they're far removed from local indignation if a contract is seen as unfair.

That also allows local businesspeople to escape responsibility. "They say, '[The low wages] aren't my fault, I am not the employer," says Mr. Lerner.

Janitors in Los Angeles average $6.90 per hour. In San Diego, where janitors are also demonstrating, they make $7.05 and have no health benefits. More than 90 percent in both cities are Latino; more than half are women.

"While the economy has been doing very well, wage growth has been very modest, especially at the bottom end of the spectrum," says Linda Bell, an economist at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. "So we can expect to see more of this."

For their part, negotiators for the contractors say market forces should determine what wages go to janitors and other maintenance employees. "We understand we have hard-working people, which is why we offered them half of what they asked for," says Dick Davis, lead negotiator for seven of the 18 firms negotiating contracts. "But they have not budged a penny, and so we have walked away."

Yet the SEIU, with 1.3 million members and strong AFL-CIO backing, won't back down easily when the stakes are so high.

"The AFL-CIO and SEIU have invested a major amount of effort in this," says Ray Hilgert, a professor of labor relations at Washington University in St. Louis. "If they can ... greatly inconvenience large segments of the cities where they strike, it might be a tremendous boost to all of organized labor."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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