WAVING placards and singing protest songs, several hundred janitors blocked a busy downtown intersection in this Silicon Valley metropolis, demanding an end to poverty-level salaries and poor working conditions.
This week's protest heralds the opening of a campaign by the janitors' union to shame the region's high-tech firms into helping it win concessions in current contract talks.
Perhaps more important, the janitors' approach may emerge as a model for the rest of big labor. Combining sophisticated political strategy with old-fashioned militancy, the janitors and their parent union - the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) - are being promoted by newly elected AFL-CIO leader (and former SEIU head) John Sweeney.
The janitors are testing their strategy on decidedly anti-union turf: Silicon Valley. Long known as champions of unbridled capitalism, the high-tech companies here, with the exception of defense firms, are not organized.
Mr. Sweeney can point to his experience at SEIU as evidence that labor can regain its bargaining strength. While the rest of the labor movement steadily shrank, SEIU doubled its membership since 1980, gaining ground among low-wage janitors, health-care workers, and public employees.
The campaign here is part of SEIU's nationwide organizing drive among janitors, known as Justice for Janitors. It began in the mid-1980s, after corporations and commercial building owners began to contract out janitorial work to service companies that used cheaper, nonunion labor to underbid the unionized firms. Contractors forced concessions from the weakened union, arguing they would lose contracts if they paid more.
Out with the old
SEIU realized finally that it couldn't win with an old-style, building-by-building organizing campaign. It also knew that traditional methods, such as strikes, were ineffective given a low-skilled, easily replaced work force.
Instead, the union aimed to set minimum-wage and benefit standards. It sought allies in communities where workers lived and carried out savvy political campaigns that targeted the image-conscious high-tech corporations who employ the service contractors.
The union made a breakthrough in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s with a year-and-a-half-long campaign that focused attention on Apple Computer. Union members disrupted shareholder meetings, picketed and demonstrated, boycotted Apple products, and even carried out a hunger strike at the company's door. Finally, Apple put pressure on its nonunion contractor to sign a union contract. The breakthrough led to unionization of janitors working at all but one of the major Silicon Valley firms.
"We found we needed creative public activities to draw attention to the plight of these workers," says Jon Barton, organizer for Local 1877 of SEIU, which represents some 5,000 janitors in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Justice for Janitors has relied on the support of community organizations, ranging from religious groups to local politicians. The campaign has championed the cause of the largely Hispanic work force, whose nightly labors cleaning office floors and emptying trash cans had been largely invisible.
Reyna Alferez, a refugee from El Salvador, has worked as a janitor for eight years, going from $5.25 an hour to $7.05. She works until 2 a.m., sleeps a few hours, and then goes to a second job to support her four children and mother.
SEIU's tactics get grudging respect from its principal opponent, the association of janitorial service firms. "When unions first started, this is what they did," says Chet Keil, negotiator for the Bay Area employers for 20 years. "I think it alienates a lot of people. They pick on the client. They don't pick on the signatory to their contracts."
In its current contract talks, the union is seeking to unify three regional contracts into one master contract, hoping to gain uniform wages that are at least above the poverty level and full family health-care benefits for all members.
Pulling firms into the fray
Again, the janitors are targeting the high-tech firms, rather than the janitorial service industry association with whom the union negotiates. A SEIU position paper, for example, states that the 150-plus janitors who clean Hewlett-Packard's facilities collectively earn less than the computer giant's chief executive officer.
"It's not a lot of fun to be used as a battlefield for a fight that is really not ours," says H-P spokeswoman Marlene Somsak. She argues that the issue is between the union and the contractors.
But other firms are more responsive to the union's campaign. Biotechnology leader Genentech agreed to meet with union representatives last week. The union had planned to picket at Genentech's headquarters in San Bruno, Calif., but called the action off when the company signaled its readiness to put in a word with the building's maintenance contractor. Genentech has also offered to pay a premium to the janitors working there.
Genentech officials acknowledge that the union's tactics are effective. "What they're trying to do is not allow the end users to be totally isolated from the contract negotiations," says Genentech vice president Jim Panek. "It makes sense from their standpoint."