Tentative Accord OK'd to End Janitors' Strike

June 26, 1990

By Bob Baker

A large international cleaning company and striking janitors announced Monday that they had tentatively settled a noisy and sometimes ugly three-week work stoppage that affected most of Century City's office towers.

Denmark-based ISS International Service System Inc., the nation's largest commercial cleaning contractor, agreed to a union contract for between 500 and 700 of its janitorial employees in Los Angeles.

The settlement, reached in the wake of a violent May 15 demonstration that resulted in 40 arrests and 16 injuries, represented a clear victory for the workers, most of them Latino immigrants.

The strikers lived on $100-a-week strike pay and food giveaways from the 925,000-member Service Employees International Union and paraded through Century City with picket signs condemning the glitzy office community as "luxury by day, sweatshop by night."

As union members, the janitors, who now receive about $4.50 an hour, will receive immediate pay increases of 10% to 15%. Next spring they will begin receiving health insurance, vacations and sick pay. They will be paid under an existing master agreement between SEIU Local 399 and two-dozen large downtown office buildings cleaned by ISS competitors.

The settlement grants Local 399 recognition as the janitors' bargaining representative not only in Century City but throughout the local's Los Angeles jurisdiction, including a dozen other downtown office buildings cleaned by ISS.

Janitors, who ceased picketing Monday morning, will hold a ratification vote today. The union expects widespread approval.

The strike began May 29 when the majority of 180 janitors in 13 Century City buildings walked out to protest alleged unfair labor practices and to pressure ISS for union recognition.

"To make a giant stride like this is unbelievable," said Jono Shaffer, a union organizer who has worked with Los Angeles janitors for the past three years as part of SEIU's national "Justice For Janitors" organizing program.

Shaffer faces a misdemeanor "urging to riot" charge stemming from his leadership of the May 15 demonstration.

"We look forward to being on a new footing with these guys," said Christopher Burrows, an attorney representing ISS.

Sources familiar with the negotiations said the May 15 demonstration brought a new sense of urgency to the labor dispute.

Los Angeles police cut short a march by 400 pro-union demonstrators in Century City, clubbing men and women repeatedly to force them to turn back on Olympic Boulevard. Widespread television footage of the police action created substantial sympathy for the janitors and anger among national leaders of organized labor.

During informal talks between the union and ISS in New York on Friday, the president of an SEIU local representing 74,000 New York janitors reportedly threatened to send ISS' 5,000 New York janitors out on strike if a settlement with the Century City janitors was not reached.

Talks were moved to Chicago on Sunday. After eight hours of negotiations a tentative settlement was signed.

The settlement calls for both sides to drop all lawsuits against each other as well as all National Labor Relations Board complaints. But the union is continuing to pursue a $10-million claim against the city of Los Angeles growing out of injuries suffered in the May 15 demonstration.

The Century City strike was a contentious, complicated power struggle that held strong significance for those segments of organized labor concerned with immigrant workers.

In the early 1980s, most janitors in Los Angeles worked under a standard union contract that provided health benefits and pay of about $7 an hour. But a flood of Central American immigrants allowed non-union contractors to underbid union contractors. The lack of a strong organizing presence resulted in many buildings becoming non-union and pay dropping drastically.

The "Justice For Janitors" campaign was effective enough to double the proportion of unionized janitors in downtown Los Angeles, to about 65% of those working in large buildings. But Century City remained a non-union bastion. This was particularly frustrating to union organizers because ISS, Century City's prime cleaning contractor, had signed union contracts in other U.S. cities. The union contended that by operating non-union, ISS was exploiting the vulnerable nature of Latino immigrants.

The union also tried to put pressure on JMB Realty Corp., a national building maintenance company that hired ISS in many of the Century City buildings. But there was little apparent movement until the union's march from a Beverly Hills park into Century City exploded.

"What happened crystallized the issues and pointed out this glaring gap between people who clean these luxurious skyscrapers and the people who inhabit them," said David Sickler, the AFL-CIO's regional director. "The gap resembles that of Third World countries."

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley reacted to the demonstration by issuing a rare call for a Police Commission investigation of tactics by police and demonstrators.

Despite the settlement, the union said Monday it will go through with a second Beverly Hills-to-Century City march scheduled for Thursday. Leaders said the march will attempt to assert their right to demonstrate. On Friday a union attorney obtained a Superior Court order which restrains police from cutting the next march short on the same grounds officers employed May 15 -- their suspicion, rather than on-the-spot proof, that demonstrators planned to disrupt traffic in Century City.

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