For those who were living in Southern California at the time, what happened 25 years ago today, June 15, is hard to forget. But it’s worth recounting the moment that changed history for janitors in Los Angeles and ultimately tens of thousands of workers.
It was a moment whose echoes can be heard even now, in the nationwide movement of underpaid working men and women known as the Fight for $15, in the push for a minimum wage of $15 an hour in Los Angeles, and even present-day Black Lives Matter and immigrant justice fights. Yes — we stood up then, and we stand up today.
In the 1980s, janitor wages stagnated and workers were losing their benefits. Janitors working in Los Angeles, almost all immigrants, began to organize, going up against some of the most powerful corporations in the world. On June 15, 1990, a peaceful Justice for Janitors march and protest in Century City turned into something more. When workers linked arms to cross a street, police officers confronted these men and women, beating them with batons and injuring dozens of marchers.
This physically and psychologically painful moment only strengthened the resolve of the janitors, galvanizing public support and spurring the main janitorial contractor to sign a union contract that provided workers a living raise with health insurance and guaranteed benefits.
We celebrate this victory a quarter-century later, at a time when a lot seems familiar to those who lived through the beginnings of Justice for Janitors:
No one gave up then. Instead, they came together with one voice, insisting, “Sí, se puede.”
For 25 years, janitors standing together have raised standards in our industry and transformed janitorial work into good jobs that help to boost the economy for everyone. Nearly half of us have won more than $15 an hour, which helps us to provide for our families. We are able to visit the doctor, buy our own homes, and save for college and retirement. We can take pride in our workplaces and our communities.
And the victory that came out of Century City set the stage for other workers in other industries — such as security officers and airport workers — to raise their voices together and organize.
But we are not done fighting.
For all but the wealthiest few, wages have been stagnant for a generation. So many of us work hard every day and night but are still underpaid. Worse — some are having their wages stolen by their employers.
And there is a huge gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us that is only getting bigger. So workers like us are fighting back.
Over the last two-plus years, the actions and courage of fast-food workers have changed how we talk about and value underpaid workers in this country. This builds on the foundation janitors laid in 1990. Today, home care workers, adjunct professors and so many others are taking up the call to Fight for $15 and a union.
In March, janitors across the country stood in solidarity with their counterparts in Chicago, and Chicago janitors won a historic contract. In April, we stood with Cleveland as that city’s janitors earned a groundbreaking contract victory as well. It was the beginning of the largest private-sector collective bargaining fight in the United States, taking place over the next 19 months. Janitors are taking to the streets in 33 cities as 133,000 cleaners negotiate with their employers — directly affecting the lives of nearly half a million men, women and children.
We are fighting to raise wages for all workers. We are fighting for a fair day’s pay for work, for an end to practices such as wage theft that worsen the cycle of poverty in our communities. We are fighting for immigration reform and racial justice. We are fighting for the future of this country.
As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Justice for Janitors campaign, we can’t forget that we live in a country where 42 percent of us are still paid less than $15 an hour. Janitors who stood up and achieved the impossible, and janitors today, will not stop until every working man and woman has won a decent wage and a union.
We will stand together to raise America with the good jobs our country needs. And we will never stop pressing to achieve a truly just society. That is what the janitors who were beaten 25 years ago were sacrificing for. It’s why we’re in the streets today.
Working people like us have won before, and we will win again.
Natividad Quintana is a Century City janitor who participated in the June 15, 1990 protest. Maria Estrada is a janitor at Union Station who is active in the Fight for $15 movement. Both are members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), United Service Workers West.