Justice for Janitors

Confronting New Models of Ownership & Employment

Members of SEIU Local 399 hold a sign that reads, “L.A.’s Two Faces: Glamour and Wealth. Poverty and Despair.”

Los Angeles witnessed a real estate boom in the 1980s with new office towers rising well beyond the downtown area. But conditions for the workers who cleaned those offices got much worse. Building owners outsourced janitorial services to contractors who competed to offer the lowest cost services. The easiest way to cut costs was to cut janitors’ wages, demand they clean more offices, and work nonunion. Economist David Weil calls this the “fissured workplace,” a process in which employers increase profits by shedding responsibility for their workers.

The Justice for Janitors campaign took aim at this process and the havoc it wrought in workers’ lives. Using dramatic public actions, community solidarity, and strategic research, janitors in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) took on multinational corporations and local business elites. The successful city-wide strike in 2000 was the culmination of more than a decade of struggle to improve working conditions and win union representation.

The Justice for Janitors campaign highlights important trends for the labor movement of the late 20th century. Faced with hostile employers and unhelpful labor laws, the union developed unorthodox legal and organizing strategies that would soon become common practice across the movement, including corporate pressure campaigns, public bargaining, and civil disobedience. With women and immigrant workers at the forefront of the campaign, Justice for Janitors a prime example of the labor movement’s changing demographics. Women played a key role in the union’s success as organizers and activist members, and in the process they challenged gender relations with their own families. Justice for Janitors is also one of several campaigns that made extensive use of strategic corporate research, and organized workers spread out over many worksites in order to raise standards across an entire employment sector. 

Further Reading

Cranford, Cynthia J. “‘It’s Time to Leave Machismo Behind!’ Challenging Gender Inequality in an Immigrant Union.” Gender and Society 21, no. 3 (June 1, 2007): 409–38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27640976.
Luce, Stephanie, Jennifer Luff, Joseph Anthony McCartin, and Ruth Milkman, eds. What Works for Workers? Public Policies and Innovative Strategies for Low-Wage Workers. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2014.
Milkman, Ruth. L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006.
Waldinger, Roger, Chris Erickson, Ruth Milkman, Daniel Mitchell, Abel Valenzuela, Kent Wong, and Maurice Zeitlin. “Helots No More: A Case Study of the Justice for Janitors Campaign in Los Angeles.” In Organizing to Win: New Research on Union Strategies, edited by Kate Bronfenbrenner, 102–19. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Primary Sources

  • Justice for Janitors History Day

    The members of SEIU-USWW gathered at the union hall in May 2011 to share their stories, memories, photographs, clippings, and artifacts. Long-time union member Victoria Marquez brought an extensive collection of documents, buttons, t-shirts, and other items. Later, she shared her life story with Andrew Gomez as part of a UCLA Oral History Research Center…

  • Una Causa Justa | A Just Cause

    This editorial from La Opinion reflects the widespread support for the Justice for Janitors campaign in the Spanish-speaking community of Los Angeles. The writer argues that the janitors’ demands are modest, and that their aggressive campaign reflects a broad dissatisfaction with the power structure in LA. Translated from Spanish by Stephanie Dyer. A Just Cause,…

  • We call each other sister unions

    Rocio Sáenz recalls the spirit of solidarity among unions in the early 1990s I come from Mexico City, and I had a union there. Even though, looking back at the unions in Mexico, they were often very corrupt, at the time I thought it was better than nothing. When I came to the U.S., I…

  • “Immigrant workers have always agreed with us philosophically”

    In this excerpt of a 1995 speech on multi-union organizing strategy, David Sickler recounts the changing relationship between immigrant workers and organized labor in southern California and identifies some of the mistakes unions have made in their approach to immigrant workers. As the Regional Director for the AFL-CIO and head of the Los Angeles-Orange County…

  • Justice for Janitors 1995 Strike News

    English and Spanish TV news coverage of street actions leading up to the 1995 strike by SEIU Local 1877, the Justice for Janitors campaign. Featured speakers include Mike Garcia, Rocio Saenz, and Jono Shaffer. Differences in style and presentation between English and Spanish-language reports suggest parallel public views of unions, inequality, and immigration. The original…

  • Building sustainable peace in Guatemala, the union perspective

    From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Central American nations of El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala experienced civil war, government-sponsored death squads, and genocide. Many who fled the violence settled in Los Angeles were they joined other immigrant workers in low-wage service sector jobs, and became part of the unionization drives of the 1990s. Immigrants…