The Organizing Laboratory: Century City

by Christina E. Springer

The City of Angels was booming in the 1980s. Los Angeles overtook Chicago as the nation’s second largest city, but not everyone benefited from this growth. Bankers, lawyers, and businessmen made comfortable salaries in the new high-rise office towers during the day, then returned to the suburbs where they basked in the luxury of the entertainment capital of the world. At night janitors scrubbed bathrooms, vacuumed carpets, and lugged trash down to the bottom floors of the same buildings. As the sun rose and suburbanites climbed into their cars to pour back into the city, the exhausted janitors rushed to finish cleaning so they could head to their second jobs. Underpaid and overworked they saw Los Angeles for what it really was: glamour by day, but a sweatshop by night.

Janitorial work had not always been like this. After World War II, the Building Service Employees International Union (they later dropped the “B” to become the SEIU) Local 399 established a strong presence in Los Angeles. As financial firms asserted more control over building owners, pressures to drive costs down led to the spread of non-union contractors and wages plummeted during the 1980s. As experienced janitors moved jobs to stay in the shrinking union sector downtown, contractors eagerly recruited new immigrant workers at lower wages. Local 399 began to research new approaches to win just pay, benefits, and better conditions for the new immigrant workforce. In 1985, SEIU created the Justice for Janitors campaign in response to the new problems the union was experiencing with the exploitative work arrangements of the non-union contract cleaning industry. The campaign’s model had been widely praised for its innovation, success, and flexibility. In 1987, Justice for Janitors was initially assigned to Local 399, the Los Angeles branch of SEIU, with a small pilot team consisting of two organizers, a servicing representative, and a researcher. The team worked to research the LA-specific intricacies of the building services industry. Understanding the structure of the industry was essential to the success of the campaign.

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