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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Unions review impact of immigration reform

AFL-CIO pamphlet on the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) passed in 1986.

The AFL-CIO published this information for unions and workers in the wake of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. The law created a process for many undocumented residents to regularize their status, and the pamphlet highlights organized labor’s role in helping “undocumented workers attain legal status and prevent discrimination by employers.” In Los Angeles, the Labor Immigrant Assistance Project (LIAP) supported workers’ amnesty applications, and the California Immigrant Workers Association (CIWA) served as a general union for immigrant workers without collective bargaining in their workplaces. IRCA also created a new federal prohibition on hiring undocumented workers, something immigrant rights advocates and organized labor in Los Angeles had strongly opposed, but the national AFL-CIO supported. The AFL-CIO abandoned this policy in 2000. View the Document.

Jobs with Peace

Activists with the 1986 Los Angeles Jobs with Peace campaign hold signs for Proposition V outside the International Ladies Garment Workers union hall on MacArthur Park. The building is now the UCLA James M. Lawson, Jr. Worker Justice Center, home of the UCLA Labor Center.

How can progressive political movements win power in geographically expansive and multiracial cities like Los Angeles? The answer, according to the Los Angeles Jobs with Peace campaign was “coalition architecture,” an intentional strategy to link the interests of organized labor with the peace movement, the women’s movement, and the African American civil rights movement through the shared goal of creating good jobs for all by redirecting money from military to domestic spending. In 1984 and 1986, the campaign backed citywide ballot initiatives and built a network of supporters at the precinct level to turnout voters. The 1984 Proposition X called on the city to research and report on pension and contract funds that flowed to military contractors. It passed by a comfortable margin. Proposition V in 1986 would have established a commission to advise the city on how to redirect funds away from military contractors. Proposition V faced a well-funded opposition campaign from business interests and lost by a wide margin. Despite the defeat, the campaign built an effective get-out-the-vote operation at the precinct level that would be the basis of future progressive victories.

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Somma waterbed workers win back pay, 1985

A group of men raise their fists and make victory signs. Some hold paper checks.
ILGWU organizer Miguel Machuca (center, wearing a tie) and Somma waterbed factory workers celebrate back-pay awards ordered by the NLRB after the company illegally fired union activists.

In 1984, workers at the Somma waterbed factory in East Los Angeles began organizing fellow workers at neighborhood soccer games and decide to join the ILGWU. Most of the workers were immigrants from Mexico and Central America, many without documentation. Their employer was Angel Echevarria, a prominent figure in the Latino community and in Los Angeles politics. In January 1985, Somma workers voted 117-48 for a union. The company refused to negotiate with the workers and illegally fired more than 20 key union activists.

The ILGWU and the fired Somma workers held continuous pickets outside the factory, joined by other workers on their lunch breaks and by community supporters. They also launched a boycott of Somma waterbeds to bring their employer to the bargaining table. When the company fired another group of organizers, workers walked out on strike and won their jobs back. After a long delay, the NLRB ordered the fired workers rehired with back pay and upheld the union election over the companies objections.

A flyer calling for supporters of striking workers to attend a solidarity rally for Somma Waterbed workers.
A flyer publicizing a rally in support of striking workers at the Somma mattress factory in Los Angeles, 1985. En Español.

Sources: ILGWU Photographs, Box 3, Folder 9, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives at the Cornell University Library. Rosalio Muñoz papers, Box 64, Folder 3, UCLA Library Department of Special Collections.

Bernstein, Harry. “Illegal Alien Issue Raised in East L.A. Dispute: LABOR.” Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), September 18, 1985, sec. Part IV.