CHAPTER 3 Janitors And e Battle Of Century City SEIU Rebuilds Base, Hits One Million MembersA s the decade of the 1990s opened, SEIU’s e ort to re- gain lost ground for janitors in Los Angeles began on theOlympic Boulevard bus that went from Century City to Pico bordering on Beverly Hills. Fancy law rms, corporations, and lm and television companies had o ces there cleaned by some 400 janitors employed by nonunion cleaning subcontractors.Union each day at 2:30 a.m. One of those, the Danish-owned ISS, employed 250—making “It was the janitors’ private bus,” recalled Jono Sha er, an it the center of SEIU’s e orts.SEIU organizer on the Justice for Janitors campaign in 1989. e location was somewhat self-contained, which worked“ ere sure wasn’t anyone else on it, and it was the one place to the union’s advantage. In addition to riding the bus togeth-where they could talk freely about their jobs.”28 er, many of the janitors would gather at the single lunch truck SEIU, which had about 5,000 members working as jani- that came at mealtime. e geography of the buildings workedtors in Los Angeles in 1978, had won contracts by 1982 that to provide a fairly easy opportunity for organizers to make con-pushed wages above $12 an hour and provided full health ben- tact with janitors.28ce ts. But building owners had begun a rush to subcontract Most of the Century City janitors were Latinos, somecleaning services at nonunion wages of less than $4 an hour from Mexico and others from El Salvador and elsewhere inwith no bene ts. Central America, a region many had ed during con icts there e shift to a hyper-competitive market resulted in new in the 1980s. Soon rank-and- le activists and union organiz-nonunion rms entering the business, while union companies ers began a series of marches and demonstrations that signaledalso set up nonunion subsidiaries to compete. the workers’ dissatisfaction. Usually, these noisy encounters in- SEIU soon found itself struggling to survive after the last volved chants, beating on drums, and aggressive activities notL.A. master agreement was reached in 1983 and membership particularly welcomed by the business executives operating inhad sunk to about 1,500. A building boom had transformed the buildings’ fancy o ces.the market in Los Angeles, and even downtown Local 399 had e union did a Secretary’s Day action during whichonly about 30 percent of the workforce in the late 1980s.28a thousands of carnations were passed out to the secretaries who e new SEIU e ort in Los Angeles focused on Bradford, worked in Century City o ces, saying thanks, in e ect, to oth-a nonunion rm eventually acquired by American Building er relatively low-wage workers who had been inconveniencedMaintenance. SEIU Local 399 won a master agreement there by earlier protests. All the action led to tenants complaining toin April 1989, which was the rst such contract in downtown the building owners about the unrest.28dL.A. in six years.28b In May 1990, having made little headway with the build- e next Justice for Janitors campaign focused on Century ing owners and the subcontractors, including ISS, SEIU tookCity, the commercial center on the West Side of Los Angeles a strike vote. After announcing the results in newspaper ads,
26 STRONGER TOGETHER: THE STORY OF SEIUthe janitors walked. For days they tied up tra c and marched Century City who went on to become president of SEIU Localthrough the buildings, which prompted the Los Angeles Police 615 in Boston.30Department (LAPD) to declare a citywide tactical alert. e police riot enraged many across the country and es- e Century City struggle’s turning point came on June pecially in Los Angeles, where an even broader group of clergy15, 1990, when Justice for Janitors held a peaceful march from and community leaders as well as elected o cials gave newBeverly Hills to Century City. About support to the union’s struggle. e100 police wielding batons attacked janitors adopted the United Farmthe 400 or so janitors and supporters e janitors’ struggle Workers’ rallying cry, “Sí Se Puede”at the intersection of Olympic Boule- (Yes We Can), long before it was usedvard and Century Park East. LAPD became the subject of the in President Obama’s 2008 electiono cers engaged in a police riot, seri- movie Bread and Roses. campaign.ously injuring about 25 people, in- In the end, the Century City jan-cluding a pregnant woman who mis- itors won their ght.carried after the attack. e janitors’ struggle at Century City—and their vic- e protestors had sat in the middle of the intersection tory—became the subject of a major feature lm directed byexpecting to be arrested. But rather than an orderly, peaceful Ken Loach entitled Bread and Roses. It brought the Justicearrest process, the LAPD waded into the group and began hit- for Janitors story to a wide audience throughout the world ating demonstrators with their batons. ose who attempted to decade later.get up were knocked back to the ground. Soon LAPD o cers Los Angeles, the city where the union had its greatest losshad called for backup, and dozens more arrived to do battle.28e of membership and deepest contract concessions at the end of Most of the fray was lmed by numerous TV cameras as the 1970s and into the early 1980s, had been a successful testreporters looked on. Bob Baker of the Los Angeles Times report- of SEIU’s ability to organize where the workforce had shifteded that “several o cers ignored calls from supervisors to stop rapidly from African American to Latino. Janitors were able tocharging the demonstrators.”29 About 40 peaceful protestors win raises, health insurance, and other bene ts, and were ablewere arrested. Sgt. William de la Torre, an LAPD spokesper- to demonstrate that the union could halt the cleaning rms’ ex-son, told reporters after the attack that police had “reacted with panded use of double-breasting (creating nonunion operationsquite an amount of restraint.” (Less than a year later, that same alongside their unionized units).LAPD brutalized Rodney King with repeated blows by baton In L.A., SEIU didn’t hesitate to spend money on the orga-that were captured on videotape and led to two o cers being nizing program and to commit substantial research and orga-sentenced to prison terms for their violence.) nizing sta , many newly hired, to the challenge. Justice for Janitors organizers feared the aftermath of the A key to the Century City outcome was the expansionpolice attack might have an intimidating e ect on the struggle. of coordinated activity by other SEIU local unions, particu-But instead of staying home, the workers turned out in force. larly Local 32BJ in New York, which had a bargaining rela-“It was just, that’s it. ey cannot treat us like this when we tionship with ISS, the multinational based in Denmark. edidn’t do anything,” wrote Rocio Saenz, an SEIU organizer at rm was fully unionized in its home country, but viciously
JANITORS AND THE BATTLE OF CENTURY CITY 27anti-union where the opportunity presented itself, such as an advocate for reform of the nation’s healthcare system. Com-L.A. Without pressure from Local 32BJ, it’s unclear whether panies such as Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) hador not the union could have forced ISS to yield to the Century begun o ering nonpro t hospitals their brand of “for-pro t”City campaign. management services. Kaiser Permanente, the prominent non- Led by Gus Bevona, 32BJ seldom used its power on behalf pro t HMO, repeatedly took on its employees, leading to aof other union locals. An internal union report in the early strike at virtually every SEIU-organized Kaiser facility in the1990s said that “our inability to get Local 32BJ to take the lead country starting in the mid-1980s.in using its leverage to support organizing around the country By 1989, some 37 million Americans had no health insur-as well as in New Jersey—its own backyard and jurisdiction— ance—and two-thirds of the uninsured were employed. Ex-has cost the union literally tens of thousands of members. It is perts estimated that nearly 100 million people in the Uniteda real question as to how long the local can maintain its power States were underinsured.and standards, as the rest of the country continues to lag farther Employer-based healthcare over the years had been a stan-and farther behind.” dard bene t for many workers, particularly those with union But L.A. proved an exception (as did Washington, D.C., contracts, but that system began to erode as Republican-in-later). e support from 32BJ, other SEIU locals on the West spired “free market” competition helped lead to runaway in a-Coast, and the intervention of the Danish unions pressuring tion in the cost of health insurance.ISS on its home turf, all contributed to the reorganizing of Los Hospital organizing was plagued by delays in the electionAngeles by the union’s Justice for Janitors campaign. ISS and process due to employers contesting the makeup of bargainingBradford together represented 3,500 janitors, and others at units in most cases. But in 1991, the U.S. Supreme CourtAmerican Building Maintenance and other big cleaning con- unanimously rejected objections by hospitals to new NLRBtractors followed. unit determination rules, making it easier to organize hospi- e Century City win bolstered those who argued SEIU tals—one of SEIU’s biggest legal victories.could take bold action across entire markets and didn’t have to SEIU’s healthcare membership jumped by more thanbe limited to organizing a few buildings and janitors at a time. 50,000 in 1989 when certain districts of District 1199 outside New York City that earlier had been part of the Retail, Whole- sale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) voted to a li-W hile SEIU was winning organizing victories in Los An- geles, San Jose, and elsewhere in the early 1990s andadding tens of thousands of new members through a liations ate. An earlier round of merger talks in the early 1980s failed because of internal strife within RWDSU.in the public sector, much of the rest of American labor found In 1973, District 1199 had established itself as the semi-itself in decline. Eight years under President Reagan’s anti- autonomous National Union of Hospital and Health Care Em-union policies followed by another four years of George H.W. ployees (NUHHCE) under the militant Leon Davis, who hadBush had weakened the union movement. a reputation for aggressive organizing and left politics. NUH- e healthcare crisis had deepened and SEIU President HCE became a “union within a union” and gained more auton-Sweeney, who had chaired the AFL-CIO’s Health Care Com- omy from the RWDSU, which had retail clerks as its base. Da-mittee since 1984, pushed the union into a leading position as vis supported the idea of one healthcare union for all healthcare
30 STRONGER TOGETHER: THE STORY OF SEIUworkers and had talked with SEIU President George Hardy in workers then would be permanently replaced and the compa-the 1970s about some form of merger with SEIU. nies would operate nonunion going forward. By 1981, with 1199/NUHHCE’s greater autonomy from Kirkland chain-smoked cigarettes using a long yellowedRWDSU, a merger referendum was held with more than 75 holder and was prone to withering dismissal of colleagues, re-percent of the healthcare members voting in favor of talks porters, and anyone he disliked. His indi erence to the plightwith SEIU that could lead to a dual a liation for them. But of member unions in steep decline contrasted with his abidingRWDSU leaders trusteed 1199/NUHHCE on the grounds of interest in pursing an anti-communist agenda on the interna-“dissension,” and the hopes of merging with SEIU’s healthcare tional stage.sector were put o . In the aftermath, 1199/NUHHCE disaf- liated from RWDSU and became independently chartered bythe AFL-CIO in 1984. e vote by key districts of 1199 to join SEIU in1989 added healthcare workers in 12 states, the District ofColumbia, and Puerto Rico. Other 1199 districts represent-ing about 25,000 workers a liated with AFCSME duringthis period. e membership growth in the healthcare sector, the hugeexpansion in public employee a liations, and the Justice forJanitors victories all poised SEIU for the incredible achieve-ment of reaching one million members. On a fall day in 1991in Miami, a nurses’ group of Haitian, Jamaican, Puerto Rican,Filipino, Nicaraguan, Cuban, African American, and whitebackgrounds boosted SEIU over the million-member mark.T he success of SEIU with the achievement of one mil- lion members unfortunately was not replicated by theAmerican labor movement, which under AFL-CIO Presi-dent Lane Kirkland continued to decline in numbers andclout. Kirkland, a protégé of George Meany, had succeededhim in 1979 and presided over the long, slow decline of thelabor federation. In the industrial heartland, plant after plant closed. Othercompanies shook o years of decent labor relations with theirunions and, taking a page out of Ronald Reagan’s PATCO SEIU’s victory at Century City helped spark renewed organizing of janitorsbook, made contract demands aimed at forcing strikes. e across Los Angeles and elsewhere in the early 1990s.
JANITORS AND THE BATTLE OF CENTURY CITY 31 A supporter of the Vietnam War, Kirkland played a keyrole in the AFL-CIO’s refusal to campaign for Democraticpresidential nominee George McGovern in 1972. Later, healigned with conservatives and neo-conservatives in formingthe Committee on the Present Danger, which campaigned forlarge military budgets. e AFL-CIO did support the Solidar-nosc movement in Poland, an act for which Kirkland deservedlywon credit. But in many other countries, American labor wasviewed with hostility for alignment with right-wing politiciansand governments that often suppressed worker movements.Under Kirkland, the AFL-CIO and its various units spentmore on international a airs than on organizing, civil rights,and worker health and safety.31 e election of Bill Clinton as U.S. President in 1992, af-ter 12 years of Republican control of the White House, heldout hope for a reversal of labor’s decline under Kirkland. Butduring the crucial moment when a bill was under considerationon Capitol Hill that would have banned permanent replace-ment of strikers, Kirkland was o in Europe—a symbol forhis critics of indi erence to the bread-and-butter concerns ofAmerican workers.T he labor movement during this period made a strategic miscalculation in delaying the legislative push for laborlaw reform and accepting President Clinton’s proposal in 1993 e story of the SEIU janitors’ victory at Century City became a feature lm starring Adrien Brody and Pilar Padilla in 2000.to establish a study commission instead. Made up of man-agement, labor, and government o cials, the commission was due to employer tactics. While major elements of the com-chaired by John Dunlop, a Harvard law professor and noted mission report underscored labor’s case for reform of laborlabor expert. It took up the issues of workplace labor-manage- laws, business had no interest in making it easier for workers toment cooperation and labor law reform. join unions. e Dunlop report did nd that workers who exercised Instead of a broad consensus on reform, the Dunlop com-their rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) mission served to delay and di use the political e ort to updateoften ended up being illegally red by employers and that labor laws. Meanwhile, employers continued to violate theabout one-third of the workplaces where workers voted to join rights of workers who sought to join unions. e delay disap-a union ended up without a collective bargaining agreement pointed many, including SEIU leaders and members, who had
32 STRONGER TOGETHER: THE STORY OF SEIUhoped the rst Democratic president in 12 years would have ney. It soon became likely that the New Voice slate of Swee-used his clout to push labor law reform forward. (By missing ney, Richard Trumka of the United Mine Workers, and Lindathis opportunity, the issue languished for more than 15 years Chavez- ompson of AFSCME would have the majority ofuntil legislation known as the Employee Free Choice Act began votes at the federation’s convention.to be debated as a serious option after the election of Barack Sweeney’s New Voice slate called for spending $20 mil-Obama as President in 2008.) lion to put thousands of new organizers in the eld to try to For workers who had hoped for progress through the ban regain lost ground. ey sought a “Sunbelt Organizing Fund”on permanent replacement of strikers and broader labor law re- to expand unionization of the growing Southern and Westernform, some disillusionment set in. en came President Clin- workforce. Taking a cue from SEIU’s own organizing successes,ton’s inability to move healthcare reform and his energetic push Sweeney proposed not only a separate organizing departmentto pass the disastrous North American Free Trade Agreement for the AFL-CIO, but also a “Center for Strategic Campaigns”(NAFTA), which was strongly opposed by labor. that would bring the federation a new capability to wage cor- In 1994, Democrats paid the price with huge losses porate accountability campaigns.at the polls that left both the House and Senate under Rep- e New Voice forces chose a young SEIU activist namedublican control. Anna Burger to manage their campaign. Picking up addition- A group of union presidents of major AFL-CIO a liates, al support from some smaller unions and from central laborincluding SEIU President John Sweeney, began to meet pri- councils, the Sweeney forces embraced the expanded organiz-vately to discuss the need to reinvigorate the labor movement, ing e ort and also a more e ective political action program instarting with replacing Kirkland. Presidents of the United Auto the wake of Republican gains in the 1994 elections.Workers, Teamsters, United Steelworkers, AFSCME, United With the New Voice for American Workers slate gainingMine Workers, and other unions approached Kirkland, then the backing of 21 unions representing 56 percent of the del-age 72, and urged him to retire and clear the way for AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Tom Donahue to move up. Kirklandrefused and attempted to dig in. He blasted the dissidents asdisloyal to him and to the concept of labor solidarity. e union presidents formed a “Committee for Change”and decided to run a candidate against Kirkland at the federa-tion’s 1995 convention. Donahue, unwilling to oppose Kirk-land, resigned as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, and the nextday Kirkland announced he would once again be a candidatefor the AFL-CIO presidency. Under the “New Voice for American Workers” label, theKirkland opposition made clear it wanted “an organizing presi- AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland (right) was pushed out in 1995 afterdent” to replace him. Rejecting AFSCME President Gerald devoting his energies to an anti-communist agenda abroad rather than build- ing union strength in the United States. Kirkland talked here with PresidentMcEntee as too polarizing, the group settled on SEIU’s Swee- George H.W. Bush.
JANITORS AND THE BATTLE OF CENTURY CITY 33egates to the AFL-CIO convention, Lane Kirkland announced picking up crucial support from state federations and centralhe would resign e ective August 1, 1995. With Kirkland out, labor councils.former Secretary-Treasurer Tom Donahue jumped into the At the convention, Sweeney won the support of 34 unionsrace, but his moment had passed. with delegates representing 57 percent of the AFL-CIO’s mem- A former Local 32BJ activist, Donahue embraced some of bership. It was a victory that held out great hope for a reinvigo-the New Voice program after being selected as Kirkland’s re- rated American labor movement that would put new resourcesplacement until the convention in October 1995. But Sweeney behind organizing and political action.and his New Voice allies continued to run a skillful campaign, And it left a vacancy in the presidency of SEIU.