Justice for Janitors campaign marks 25-year anniversary

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Groundbreaking union organizing and immigrant rights effort still working today

Dozens of SEIU members, including activists fighting to organize local security guards, gathered on Capitol Mall on June 15 to celebrate the 25-year anniversary of the groundbreaking Justice for Janitors campaign during a national day of action.

“Justice for Janitors shows what workers can do when we stand together, when we fight,” said SCLC president Lino Pedres. “As long as we have solidarity and commitment, we have the power to win.”

Below is an excerpt from SEIU on the history of the campaign, which transformed both the janitorial industry in the U.S. as well as serving as a social justice model for modern organizing efforts:

In 1983, the average janitor working in Los Angeles earned a salary of more than $7.00 an hour and full family health insurance.

But by 1986, wages dropped to $4.50, and health care coverage had evaporated. By the mid-80s, membership in SEIU’s 21 janitors’ unions was in sharp decline.

The property services industry was changing. Building owners were no longer hiring cleaners directly, and employers were starting to hire Latino immigrants and becoming very resistant to janitors’ unionization efforts. So SEIU took action.

Justice for Janitors began in Los Angeles in 1990 when SEIU Local 399 was working to secure a union contract for that city’s low-wage workers employed by cleaning contractor International Service Systems (ISS), who cleaned the majority of the city’s office buildings.

On June 15, 1990, striking janitors and their supporters held a peaceful march and demonstration in LA’s Century City district. As the protest got underway, 400 striking janitors fighting to win a union to build a better life for their families found themselves squaring off against fifty baton-wielding police officers. When the workers linked arms to cross the street in Century City, they were beat back by dozens of police officers, and thirty-eight of the wounded marchers were arrested.

Undeterred even by police brutality, the fearless janitors refused to back down. They stayed in the streets and were joined by 2,500 people cheering them on – construction workers, shop workers, state and local political leaders, even a mop-toting Jesse Jackson – who shared their anger at wealthy corporate CEO’s paying themselves millions, while paying the people who cleaned up after them as little as $4.50 an hour.

The janitors’ perseverance – and far-reaching community support – paid off. Widespread public outrage at the police action helped spur ISS to sign a union contract soon afterward. Janitors won a wage increase of more than $2 hour (to $6.80 per hour) and went from having no health benefits to full family health coverage. By winning this battle, the successful mobilization of janitors in Los Angeles paved the way for other successes in LA and nationwide.

The landmark Century City campaign proved to be a turning point for re-organizing the workers responsible for sweeping and cleaning up the sparkling high rises of Los Angeles, Denver, Miami, Houston, Boston, Minneapolis, Washington, DC, and Canada.

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