- one, workers in low profit margin service industries rarely become high wage workers and no matter how many of them one organizes they do not have the leverage to put pressure on the wider society for progressive political change; and
- two, much of the upswing in organizable low wage workers has been driven by a one time jump up in illegal immigration from Mexico due to NAFTA type restructuring there, but that trend is set to reverse now with a slowdown in the U.S. economy and then the immigration flow tends to reverse.
However it had a ripple effect that went across the entire American working class.
The weakening of the construction unions severely hurt the building maintenance trades as well.
Companies that had dispensed with contractors that used union construction labor certainly didn’t want to have union labor cleaning their offices either.
So they went on the offensive against their janitors, firemen, oilers and stationary engineers.
Hardest hit was the Service Employees International Union (”Building” was dropped from the name in 1968 – because by that point the vast majority of their members were hospital workers or civil service employees).
In pretty much every major city except for Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Boston and Chicago’s Loop, SEIU janitors directly employed by building owners were laid off and replaced by non union minimum wage workers employed by cleaning contractors.
The pay drop was drastic – in Los Angeles, janitor wages fell overnight from $ 13/hr to minimum wage – $ 3.35 – with no pension or health insurance.
And even the cities that survived the unionbusting the union only remained in the downtown office buildings – the suburbs were as agressively deunionized as any other area.
And the downtown workers in those few highly unionized cities may have stayed union but, like every other janitor in America, they now worked for cleaning contractors, rather than directly for the owners of the buildings.
Like the new breed of construction contractors, these firms were almost always double breasted.
Unlike the construction contractors, many cleaning firms were national and even international in scope.
The biggest, Copenhagen, Denmark-based ISS, operated on 3 continents – 100% union back home in Copenhagen but agressively anti union everywhere else in the world.
But most of the cleaning contractors that came to dominate property services were US based firms like American Building Maintenance (ABM) and OneSource. They were very much double breasted – like ISS they were union in some areas, and ferociously scab in others, deending on the strength of a given area’s labor movement.
There was also an ugly racial aspect – many of the SEIU janitors were African American – most of their replacements were undocumented Latino immigrants.
The SEIU did nothing to resist the attack.
And they had their reasons.
After all, they were adding tens of thousands of hospital workers and civil servants every year, often organized thanks to backroom patronage deals with Democratic Party controlled local governments (which often involved Democratic Party controlled public worker company unions being absorbed into the SEIU as a body).
Those arraingements had made the SEIU the fastest growing union in America – from 480,000 in 1975 to over 688,000 a decade later, at a time when most American unions were rapidly shrinking.
In light of all that easy growth in the public sector, why on earth would the SEIU chiefs want to go to war with these agressive multinational cleaning contractors on behalf of a few thousand Black janitors?
It would be another decade before the SEIU leadership even so much as lifted a finger for the janitors.
Meanwhile, out in California, the building trades were presented with yet another opportunity to reunionize the industry – this time, in the state’s Southland.
In the spring of 1990, Los Angeles local 399 of the Service Employees International Union launched an organizing drive among janitors working for ISS in the Century City office building complex.
This campaign was part of the “Justice 4 Janitors” project that the international leadership of the SEIU had launched 5 years earlier, to try and reunionize the office building janitors who’d been deunionized back in the late 1970’s.
Officially, the SEIU leaders never talked about that deunionization – or the ethnic cleansing replace-Black-Americans-with-Latino-immigrants aspects of it.
SEIU propaganda presented the industry as if it had never ever been unionized at all, like this was a first time organizing drive, rather than bringing the SEIU back to a business that had been union for over 50 years at the time the unions had been broken just 11 years earlier.
There were some other disturbing aspects – like the union’s very patronizing view of the janitors as victims, or the focus on getting white collar professionals to pity the janitors rather than trying to build solidarity with their fellow building workers, or the utter recklessness with which janitors were marched into a confrontation with the Los Angeles Police Department during a rally in a basement parking lot at Century City.
25 workers got hurt in that latter episode – including a pregnant janitor who was kicked in the stomach by an LAPD officer and lost her baby – and many arrested janitors got deported back to Mexico or Central America.
But, the strike was the first major building worker walkout in California in 20 years.
And they succeeded in getting a union contract at Century City and a number of other major office buildings in downtown LA.
A near minimum wage union contract that was almost $ 8/hr less than 1979 union scale – but a union contract nonetheless!
And it had caught the imagination of workers all over Southern California – and not just the White professionals and clericals that the SEIU wanted to pity the janitors, but the blue collar Latinos who had come to be a majority of LA’s private sector workforce in the previous decade.
Justice 4 Janitors also gave the American labor movement the opportunity to take advantage of the heroism, street smarts and activism skills of the many Salvadoran and Guatemalan communist political refugees among the janitors.
Incidentally, those aforementioned revolutionary Central Americans had tried to take their rightful place in local 399’s leadership after the strike. They, along with White, Black and Mexican American LA municipal worker activists in local 399, had run a slate of candidates in the local 399 executive board elections right after the strike.
That wasn’t part of the plan – janitors (and LA County clerical and service workers, for that matter) were supposed to be voiceless faceless victims, not active participants in the political life of their own union.
So, the SEIU international blocked the new local 399 officers from taking office, and the militant newly organized janitors were removed from local 399 and attached to local 1877, a local run by conservative Chicano officers and, more importantly, based 400 miles away from Los Angeles, up in San Jose (the better to keep LA janitors from participating in the political life of the local!)