Labor's Giant Step in Los Angeles

Dolores Trevizo and Warren Montag

ON MAY 30, 1990 a seemingly unpromising strike began amidst the glittering towers of Century City, an office and shopping complex situated in posh West Los Angeles adjacent to Beverly Hills. About 120 janitors (primarily Central American and Mexican immigrants) launched a strike for union recognition, to raise their wages from $4.25 an hour, and to win health benefits.

Their employer, the Danish cleaning firm International Service Systems (ISS), is a billion dollar corporation that is not only the largest such firm in Los Angeles but in the world. ISS allied with the building owners in Century City, including some of the most powerful real-estate interests in Southern California (such as JMB Realty Corporation) to resist the janitors’ demands.

Three and one-half weeks later, the city was stunned to hear that the janitors had won all of their demands and more. ISS’s entire janitorial work force in Los Angeles and Orange County will go union. A tiny group of Latino workers— many undocumented – led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 399 as part of the national Justice for Janitors campaign had prevailed over some of the most powerful business interests in Southern California.

The strike highlighted what is essential to the socio-economic and political reality of Los Angeles today: the extreme class polarization and racial segregation. In Los Angeles the two are identical. Southern California is one of the most prosperous regions in the country but at the same time one of the most segregated. For its prosperity has not resulted in a generalized, if graduated, improvement of the standard of living.

On the contrary, this very prosperity is based on the systematic transfer of wealth from the inner city working class (primarily people of color) to the upper-middle class Westside and the San Fernando Valley. The economic boom currently taking place in Los Angeles is based upon the replacement of high-wage, industrial and high-tech, mostly unionized jobs with labor-intensive, low-wage “sweated industries and service jobs.

The ideal business conditions that are said to exist in Southern California have also been founded on very low property taxes for businesses and wealthy homeowners. The tax burden falls on workers, who face deteriorating social services (education, health care, etc.) as a result of inadequate public funding. Business prospers in Los Angeles at the direct expense of the working class.

This economic restructuring decimated industrial I unionism in Los Angeles. From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s over 300,000 (mostly union) jobs were lost as auto, steel and tire plants closed down, leaving the industrial belt of Southeast Los Angeles looking like the rust belt cities of the Midwest The replacement of heavy industry with light manufacturing and service industries required a large, constant supply of unorganized immigrant labor, available because of the proximity of the U.S.-Mexico border and deteriorating economic and political conditions in Central America and Mexico.

The Black community, which had won access to the highly paid unionized jobs of Los Angeles’ industrial belt only in the 1960s (in the aftermath of the Watts rebellion), was particularly devastated by the virtual disappearance of heavy industry in Los Angeles. Further, the community is threatened with even worse conditions as the unionized public sector–one of the few other avenues of economic opportunity–shrinks as a result of massive budget cuts.

Given the apparently universal acceptance by politicians of the privatization of many public sector functions and the contracting out of its remaining services, the future of the Black community seems bleak indeed. The decline of the traditional Black community of South-Central Los Angeles, a community today plagued with drugs and crime, can be directly attributed to the economic restructuring that has produced the city’s paradoxical “prosperity.”

The plight of what will soon be Los Angeles’ new majority – the Latino working class – is hardly better. Although not facing quite the same levels of unemployment as Los Angeles’ Blacks, Latinos are swelling the ranks of the working poor and the working homeless. Many labor at least forty and often more hours a week for less than subsistence level wages in one of Los Aneles’ illegal and unregulated sweat shops or as part of its growing underground economy. Products ranging from clothing to toys and from furniture to tires are produced in tiny apartments, garages, store fronts and warehouses for contractors. They in turn sell to manufacturers who are thus relieved of any responsibility for working conditions and wages.

Alongside the increasing illegality of the so called “competitive sector” of the Los Angeles economy is the proliferation of underground forms of economic life. In and around the city’s downtown, the streets are thronged with vendors of all sorts of wares: Cigarettes, cassettes, ice-cream, fruit, tamales, and even some of the goods manufactured under the conditions described above can all be bought from unlicensed push carts or makeshift stands. Almost every freeway ramp in the city has men, women and children selling peanuts and oranges. Tens of thousands migrate daily across the divide that separates Los Angeles’ two worlds to servicethe white minority ensconced in its Westside enclave as maids, babysitters, gardeners, handymen, etc.

In one sense, the new immigrant working class is even more marginalized than its Black counterpart. The passage of the Simpson-Rodino Bill in 1986 signaled the permanent exclusion of new immigrants from all official forms of political and social existence. Ignored by the politicians (even those who are Latino), condemned by the law to invisibility and silence, the new immigrants and especially their children face the most desperate conditions. Los Angeles’ Latino gangs have been swollen by an influx of the children of the undocumented who, without any hope of securing a legitimate place in society or of earning more than the minimum wage (if that), have turned to gang life, which offers a sense of community and a means of survival.

But it is precisely the presence of this immigrant and in many cases undocumented workforce that has proven so tremendously attractive to both domestic and foreign capital. It is a workforce that has been terrorized so effectively that it will endure even the most oppressive and exploitative conditions. Los Angeles thus offers Third World wages under first world conditions. It is not, therefore, surprising that the growth rate for manufacturing in Los Angeles is the highest in the nation and that it is witnessing one of the largest construction booms in its history. These conditions have helped make this city the financial capital of the Pacific Rim.

In the face of this reality, union officials have tended to throw their hands up in the air, declaring the Los Angeles manufacturing and service sectors impossible to organize and the new immigrant working class unwilling to join the labor movement Reflecting the shortsighted and ultimately self-destructive position of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, LA. Times labor columnist Harty Bernstein (also a member of Democratic Socialists of America) recently attacked the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) decision to fight for the repeal of the employer sanctions provision of the Simpson-Rodino Bill. Bernstein laments that “a couple of unions trying to oranize illegals have joined the campaign against punishing employers who hire them,” instead of supporting the decision of the “14 million member AFL-CIO” to lobby for even stronger legislation to exclude the new immigrants (Los Angeles Times, July 17, 1990).

But Bernstein and the AFL-CIO bureaucracy ignore the fact that not a single study by the government or by independent agencies supports the idea that the immigration reform act of 1986 would actually stem the tide of illegal immigration. In fact, the law has had one primary effect to regulate and discipline the undocumented workforce whose presence in the region is both desirable and absolutely vital to the current economic boom and to the future projections of capital.

The continuing presence of the immigrant working class in the area is a given, and the labor movement can either hide its eyes as its ranks are further reduced or it can follow the example of the “couple of unions” who have attempted to organize the new working class.

The labor movement must face up to the harmful effects of its policy: Most of the new industries remain unorganized and once unionized service industries – hotel, restaurant and janitorial — have been allowed to go almost completely non-union. For example, only 2 percent of Los Angeles’ garment workers are unionized today, and for other industries, such as furniture manufacturing, the percentage is even lower.

The case of Los Angeles’ janitors organized in SEW Local 399 is especially instructive: The recent history of the local reveals both the bankruptcy of the traditional business union approach and the great potential of an aggressive and militant organizing strategy. Up to 1983, Los Angeles’ janitors were covered by a single standard maintenance agreement. At that time they earned $7.50 an hour and had full health benefits.

The cleaning contractors took advantage of the new wave of immigration to cut labor costs and break the union’s hold on the labor market. Initially the union reacted by granting numerous concessions to employers, only to watch a continuing erosion of their base. By 1987, only 30 percent of Los Angeles janitors remained unionized. By the time the Justice for Janitors Campaign came to the local that same year, it was clear that a conservative strategy attempting merely to defend earlier gains through forms of cooperation with the employer (granting wage concessions in order to make the employer more competitive) could mean only the destruction of the local’s janitorial unit.

The Justice for Janitors Campaign began its attempts to turn the tide of deunionization not simply by organizing on a building by building or even company by company basis but by forging the strongest possible community-labor alliance. They rejected the idea that Los Angeles’ Latino working class is pliant, obedient, and willing to accept the most exploitative and oppressive conditions in the work place and in the community.

For this working class had already entered the political scene, disrupting plans for making Los Angeles a utopia of free enterprise for local and international capital. Time after time, it showed a remarkable combativity, tenacity, and a capacity for self-organization that had for the most part remained untapped.

The first signs of this combativity emerged in the early phases of the downtown renaissance. The revitalization of the downtown brought capital into conflict with the Latino working class at the community level. The immigrant population that feeds downtown manufacturing and services is quartered in a cluster of neighborhoods that surround the central city. The city’s expansion, particularly to the south and the west, threatens these densely populated immigrant communities, setting the need for greater office and commercial space against the need for affordable housing.

In several separate cases stretching back to the late 1970s, specific plans for commercial expansion were thwarted by neighborhood mobilizations. By the late 1980s, the participants in these separate struggles converged to form the city-wide Coalition for Critical Needs. A city-wide alliance joining the labor movement and working-class communities, this coalition began directly to challenge the dictates of the all powerful Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), the body appointed to oversee the grants and loans which finance the development transforming Los Angeles.

The head of the CRA, James Wood (also not coincidentally a leading official in the County Federation of Labor) was so concerned about the potential power of this labor-community alliance uniting Black and Latino interests in Los Angeles that he quickly took measures to prevent its consolidation. In particular, he offered concessions to the two most dynamic and militant unions, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11 and the Justice for Janitors campaign.

Wood committed the CRA to urging that building owners receiving grants and loans from the city employ workers under a union contract. This mandate was followed in many hotels, restaurants and office buildings. As a result, within a few years 65 percent of the janitors in the downtown area were unionized. Allying itself with militant community groups, housing advocates, etc., the Janitors were able to win an impressive victory at the outset It forced the city to grant concessions.

The Justice for Janitors campaign was thus able to consolidate a base. Now working from a position of strength, the campaign began to carry out militant, colorful and usually successful organizing drives in the downtown district. These successes increased the workers’ confidence in the union and created a kind of esprit de corps. Finally, toward the end of 1989, the campaign targeted ISS.

The victory in Century City is a vindication of the concept of social unionism. By taking up a broad range of working-class community and labor struggles, the Justice for Janitors campaign tapped into the strength of the new immigrant working class. Everything about the strike showed the militancy, the courage and the determination of these immigrants, many of whom come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico and therefore know far better than their native-born counterparts how important strong trade unions are.

This strike should be studied very carefully because it shows the way that the labor movement in the Southwest and the labor movement as a whole can not only regain the ground lost in the last decade, but can become the centerpiece of a new social movement ¡Sí se puede! Yes, it can be done.

September-October 1990, ATC 28