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.

Scholars and labor observers see in the story of the Justice for Janitors campaign a number of key 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