A look back and a look forward: 25 years of organizing janitors
June 15, 2015 is the 25th anniversary of "Justice for Janitors Day," commemorating the day which became a flashpoint for one of the most successful underpaid worker campaigns in recent history and brought the Justice for Janitors movement onto the national scene.
For over two decades, SEIU's Justice for Janitors (J4J) movement has helped underpaid workers who clean buildings in major cities and suburbs achieve social and economic justice and earn broad-based support from the public as well as religious, political and community leaders.
With "One Industry, One Union, One Contract" serving as both a campaign slogan and an organizing strategy, the Justice for Janitors campaign coordinated efforts nationally and internationally to raise wages and increase basic benefits and job security for janitors.
Keep reading to learn more about J4J's groundbreaking national campaign work.
In 1983, the average janitor working in Los Angeles earned a salary of more than $7.00 an hour and full family health insurance.
Time For Some Action
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.
In June 1990, SEIU Local 399 in Los Angeles was working to secure a union contract for Los Angeles' low-wage workers employed by cleaning contractor International Service Systems (ISS) who cleaned the majority of the city's towering office buildings. It had been a tense two weeks, as public support for the defiant janitors--many of whom were immigrants--refused to end the strike until the LA janitors won a union.
The 10-Mile March That Helped Launch A Social Justice Movement
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. More J4J accomplishments:
Transforming the Lives of a Generation of Workers
- The Justice for Janitors campaign has secured 27 master contacts with commercial cleaning contractors.
- More than 225, 000 janitors in more than 30 cities throughout Canada and the United States have united with SEIU to raise industry standards and transform poverty wages into livable wages.
- An additional 27 master contracts made with Justice for Janitors have transformed the lives of a generation of workers and set an example of giving families a solid toe hold in the middle class.
In remembrance of the Century City campaign that launched a movement, SEIU janitors and supporters take action every June 15 in cities nationwide and in countries around the world.
The J4J organizing model aims to compel employers "to fight on our terms, not theirs."
Organizing Over the Next 20 Years
J4J successes over the past 24 years have employed visually creative and compelling tactics such as imagery of the exploitation of workers, demonstrations, street theater, hunger strikes, vigils and blockades--as well as extensive clergy-labor alliances and community organizing.
Innovative organizing tactics such as these and the release of the popular movie Bread and Roses (2000) helped bring the J4J campaign to the attention of the larger U.S. public. Loosely based on the 1988 struggle in Los Angeles, the film about organizing the working poor makes many of the same connections between workers' rights and immigrant rights that SEIU does.
Justice for Janitors and Immigration Reform
"A decade ago, Los Angeles janitors led a national labor renaissance, proving through fearless, in-your-face street actions that unions could indeed be relevant to an outsourced, low-wage, immigrant work force."
- LA Times, April 8, 2000.
Just as we did 24 years ago in Los Angeles, we are fighting for justice by integrating the call for labor and immigrant rights--uniting the force of both native and non-native workers, unionized and the non-unionized.
Over the last two-plus decades, the successes of the Justice for Janitors campaign serve as the most powerful reminder that united we rise together; that collectively we can recreate the American dream for workers. United we can raise wages and improve working conditions. United we can pass comprehensive immigration reform. And united, we can deliver justice.
SEIU members and activists inspired by this movement honor the legacy of the Justice for Janitors campaign annually on June 15th with marches and rallies in the U.S. and abroad, demanding a living wage and calling for comprehensive immigration reform and a fair voice on the job for all workers.
Justice for Janitors Day
As 2010 marked the 20th anniversary of Justice for Janitors Day and its roots in the immigrant workers struggle, we will continue to honor the important role that immigrants play in strengthening our economy, creating jobs, and making our nation great.
In 2011, janitors seeking to strengthen America's beleaguered middle class across the country will mark the 21st Annual Justice for Janitors Day by protesting an economy that many consider unbalanced, unjust, and unfair. More details here.
The innovative Justice for Janitors campaign is one of the signature efforts that not only boosted SEIU's profile as the union that stands up for the often-invisible, low-wage worker--it also helped to reinvigorate the labor movement, perfecting organizing tactics along the way.
A Core Value
The J4J campaign, which has helped give hundreds of thousands of workers a voice on the job to improve the standards of living for themselves and their families, is rooted in the core values on which SEIU was founded in 1921 Chicago. Then called the "Building Services Employees Union (BSEIU), janitors were among our fledgling unions' first members, along with elevator operators and window washers.
Justice For Janitors Campaign Resources
- 24th ANNIVERSARY: Justice for Janitors campaign: http://seiu.me/j4j24
- TIMELINE: 20 Years of J4J campaign successes
- VIDEOS: On J4J's history, campaign highlights, actions and workers' voices
- PHOTOS: View images from Justice for Janitors campaign actions spanning 20 years on our Flickr J4J slideshow
- JANITORS' STORIES: UCLA Justice for Janitors History Project Online Archive