Once Almost Invisible in California’s High Rise Buildings, Janitors Make Visible Progress for Service Workers6 min read


What the Justice for Janitors Campaign Means in a State Where Blue Collar Wages are Stagnant and Costs are High

When janitors in Sacramento recently ratified a new agreement, it marked the final piece in a string of landmark contract victories for 20,000 janitors across California. Highlighted by a pivotal eight–day strike in Silicon Valley, their campaign was another key victory in SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign and in overall progress for California’s service workers.

Twenty thousand janitors from San Diego to Sacramento won wage increases of more than 20 percent, improved access to family health care and in some areas gained access to dental care coverage for the first time. We also united janitorial contracts within regions, which will help us maintain standards on workplace rights. And looking forward, we secured career ladder opportunities as well as employer funding for educational programs, so janitors can learn English and computer skills.

The bottom line is that thousands of California families will be able to take a real step forward over the next four years, even as most blue-collar workers’ wages have been stagnant. For many, this spring’s gains will mean the difference between getting by and falling further behind. Janitors struggle with the same rising costs every family faces. They have been stretching modest wages further than ever to cover rent, food and gas. Janitors came together this year to fight not just for their families but for all California working families.

Sacramento janitor Celia Miranda works two jobs, but has never been able to qualify for family health benefits. Maria Lopez of San Jose shares an apartment with her husband, four children and two other families, and must still devote half her paycheck to rent. Examples like these two women’s show why commitment runs so deep among the janitors. They will not stop fighting for their families and those like them.

Through much of the last century, manufacturing jobs were a mainstay of a growing U.S. economy. Even those who today fight against unions when we push for higher wages, bemoan the loss of “good” manufacturing jobs.

But manufacturing jobs weren’t created as reliable, well–paying jobs. They developed into good jobs because factory workers organized, unionized and demanded decent wages, which owners could clearly afford. This increased wages for unionized workers, but also raised the floor for everyone.

California has some of the greatest centers of wealth in the world today, in industries such as technology and financial services, clustered in our downtowns and high-tech hubs. In these centers’ great revenue–generating buildings, all workers can and should be earning enough to support their families at the very least. But like factory workers a century ago, their situation only improves when they stand up for themselves.

As long as their employers and others who work in their buildings can look past them, service workers’ needs will be ignored. Janitors especially seem almost invisible, often cleaning at night when other workers have left the office. Through the SEIU Justice for Janitors campaign, tens of thousands of janitors scored major gains by throwing off that cloak of invisibility. Janitors have been successful by taking to the streets, letting their stories be heard and confronting building owners, civic leaders and the broader public with their plight.

We ask people what kind of community they want to live in. We show that janitors’ families have the same basic concerns as most working families. We ask why workers should struggle so much, even as they work in some of the world’s richest buildings. When we are able to do this and connect with our communities, we receive deep support. The communities where we work and live see the benefits of the fight for good jobs.

Janitors, in turn, have seen the benefits of supporting broader organizing of service workers. Their example and solidarity was critical in organizing security officers working in many of their same buildings. It was a special mark of unity given that the janitors are largely Latino, and the security officer organizing drive was the largest such effort among African–American workers in more than sixty years.

It bore fruit this January, when about 4,000 security officers in Los Angeles won agreement on their first contract with the commercial building security contractors who employ them. These officers won pay and health care package increases of 40 percent over a five-year contract, as well as a career ladder. “This groundbreaking agreement will start to reshape the landscape of Los Angeles not just for security officers, but for the entire community,” declared Faith Culbreath, President of SEIU SOULA Local 2006, the security officers’ union.

The Los Angeles Times, in an editorial, agreed. SEIU’s recent contract “benefit[s] the public at large,” the newspaper stated. The 40 percent pay boost “carries the added benefit of pumping higher wages into the South Los Angeles economy, by way of the 4,000 or so officers who live in the area.”

Finally, the victories for security officers and janitors have emboldened our statewide effort to improve the quality of jobs, services and security at California’s busiest airports. Over 20,000 low-wage service workers are employed by Airline-contractors at California airports. These workers serve as skycaps, security officers, wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, janitors, and ramp and cargo crews. They play essential roles in ensuring the safety and security of passengers and other airport personnel, and are often the face of the airlines and of our cities to the travelling public.

Unfortunately, airlines have fueled an irresponsible race to the bottom for conditions for these workers, resulting in turnover rates rivaling those of the fast-food industry, shoddy training standards, and plummeting customer satisfaction ratings. That’s why this summer we’re calling on airlines like American and United to get on board for quality jobs that will guarantee improved safety and service.

With landmark janitorial contracts up and down the state, following a groundbreaking security contract, history will already remember 2008 as a banner year for California service workers. By maintaining our commitment to organizing and unity, we are poised to continue those gains and raise the floor for all.

Mike Garcia is the President of SEIU Local 1877 and serves as Vice President of SEIU International Union and Co-Chair of the union’s Building Service Division. He grew up in East Los Angeles and Pacoima, where his father was a union factory worker. Working his way through college as a janitor, Garcia learned of the exploitation associated with that industry.

Garcia earned a master’s degree in social work and worked for SEIU, first as an organizer, then as president of the Denver, Colorado local. In 1990, Garcia returned and became president of SEIU Local 1877 in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he led successful janitorial organizing campaigns against companies cleaning the giant campuses of Oracle, Apple, Hewlett-Packard and others.

After Local 1877 expanded statewide, Garcia led the historic janitor’s strike of 2000, which he proudly notes “changed the lives of thousands of janitors and their families and was truly a story of hard working immigrant workers fighting to lift themselves out of poverty and achieve the American Dream.”


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