Striking janitors overcome fierce obstacles

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Undaunted by ICE raids, dot-com goliaths, and sluggish union leadership, Bay Area janitors kicked off a gutsy nine-day strike on May 19. Overwhelmingly immigrant and female, they picketed some of the country’s richest corporations — including Oracle, Yahoo, Applied Materials, and Cisco Systems — for raises, healthcare and respect.
Frustration over the previous weak contract was rampant. Poverty wages and inadequate benefits left workers no choice but to fight just to survive the mounting costs of rent, gas and food in the already expensive area.
In striking back, members of SEIU Local 1877 won important victories, such as a 22 percent raise — rare in today’s economy. And with stronger leadership, they could have won even more.
Courage under fire. The strike was waged by the “Justice for Janitors” union, Service Employees International Union Local 1877, representing 20,000 custodians in California. Several contracts expired in April; the union is fighting for master agreements, which consolidate multiple contracts, in Northern and Southern California. Given the stakes, this strike’s success was especially important.
Of the 6,000 Bay Area Local 1877 members, the majority are women from Central America and Mexico. Many are undocumented and many are heads of families. Their annual salaries before the settlement were roughly $23,000 — far below the estimated $72,343 it takes to raise a family in California.
This largely immigrant labor force faces constant persecution by cops and federal agents. Since May 1 alone, more than 900 workers have been nabbed in Northern California ICE raids. Undocumented workers regularly endure confiscation of their vehicles for driving without a license to work.
But janitors were ready to fight no matter the consequences. Those on strike swelled to 1,500 across the Bay Area. They picketed, rallied, protested Intel’s stockholders meeting, and clashed with scabs and police to demand better wages and conditions.
The targeted high-profile companies tried the excuse that cleaners are hired by subcontractors. But the companies are ultimately responsible for decent contracts, based on how much they pay subcontractors.
The janitors’ strategy included publicly embarrassing these Fortune 500 building owners, while carefully observing laws against secondary boycotts (pressuring businesses not directly involved in the dispute). But strike lines were skimpy at night. Police also grew progressively more aggressive, escorting scabs into sites and threatening to arrest picketers.
What was won and the distance still to go. The new four-year contract has pay and benefit increases estimated at $99 million, and will boost wages up to $1,250 per year. Healthcare eligibility waiting periods were reduced to one year for workers and from 2.5 years to 18 months (by 2011) for family members.
But given insufficient base pay and benefits, SEIU officials needed to pull out the stops and fight for better. Solidarity was on the side of strikers: Teamsters, the building trades and other unions honored the lines and public support continued to grow.
To win anything approaching real justice for janitors, the strike needed an aggressive strategy, one that would build momentum by calling on unions and community groups to help maintain picket lines around the clock; mobilize all of Local 1877 to picket every site; and draw on national SEIU’s resources.
Instead, union leaders settled abruptly with Google and Genentech after they offered a 31 percent raise and shorter healthcare access periods in exchange for ending the strike at their buildings. Rather than using the offer as leverage to wrest concessions from the holdout employers, this early deal affecting 8 percent of janitors took many members off guard and knocked some wind out of the strike.
The achievements of this strike resulted from the workers’ combative spirit and unwavering determination. But they deserve far more. Here’s a winning strategy for the next battle:
• SEIU leaders need to call out the entire labor movement to defend the right to strike — organize mass pickets and defy anti-labor laws when necessary.
• Organize strike support committees in advance, with the help of other labor bodies; make it possible for sympathizers to join picket lines by providing resources, like transportation, food and childcare!
• Implement the call of SEIU activists for a national strike fund (see www.reformSEIU.org) so workers aren’t forced to settle early due to mounting bills.
This strike offers a taste of the power and potential of immigrant workers on the move. Despite tough economic times and a climate of fearmongering, these janitors, women and men, exerted the type of bravery and true leadership that the labor movement so desperately needs. ¡Adelante!
Toni Mendicino, a union secretary and Freedom Socialist Party Organizer who picketed with Local 1877, can be reached at t_mendicino@yahoo.com.

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