During the day, Los Angeles' downtown office buildings are symbols of corporate power and affluence. But at night, those same gleaming high-rises become dim workplaces for several thousand janitors who, until recently, labored under wretched conditions without visibility or organization.
Last year, owners of buildings that stand as some of downtown's best-known landmarks--the Pacific Stock Exchange, California Plaza, the Wells Fargo building, the AT&T building and the O'Melveny and Myers building--received more than $500 million in rental revenues. The janitors, the majority of whom are immigrant workers from Central America and Mexico, are paid an average of $4 an hour while cleaning the equivalent of 15 complete houses a night. They commonly receive no breaks, no medical insurance, no sick leave, and are even forced to work overtime without compensation for fear of being fired for not completing their work.
Nine major downtown office buildings--including Arco Plaza, Crocker Center and Security Pacific Plaza--have union contracts with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 399 that provide their janitors wages of $5.80 an hour, health insurance, sick leave and paid vacations. But as the laws of competition drive wages to the lowest possible level, the SEIU either will succeed in organizing the non-union buildings and raising the wages of all the downtown janitors or eventually the minimum wage (now $3.35, to be $4.25 starting Friday) will become the maximum for everyone.
The union has responded to these conditions by organizing an innovative national campaign called "Justice for Janitors" that has involved thousands of workers and has won good contracts in cities from Pittsburgh to San Diego. In Los Angeles recently, SEIU Local 399 held a spirited bargaining convention of more than 400 janitors demanding a minimum raise of $1 an hour with an industry minimum of $5.50, paid sick leave, improved health and safety conditions, medical benefits and a union contract.
At the convention, in my halting Spanish I asked Oscar Mejia, a janitor and union activist, if he thought that they could win. He said, "I'm sure of it. In El Salvador when I was in the unions, the death squads killed most of our organizers and even Archbishop Romero. Here we have Father Olivares (pastor of "La Placita," the Catholic church at Olvera Street) and political leaders on our side and at least we have the right to speak. We are unified and our victory is just a matter of time."
Relative to the conditions in El Salvador and Guatemala, the workers' optimism is warranted, but the obstacles to victory are still substantial. Their direct employers are cleaning contractors--Century Cleaning, Bradford Maintenance, Doral Industries and Benco Building Services--hired by building management firms. The contractors claim that the owners are squeezing them, while the building owners say, "What do you want from me--these aren't my employees."
Mayor Tom Bradley has offered encouragement to the janitors, and the City Council has passed a resolution of support. But neither Bradley nor mayoral hopeful Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky has provided the leadership to compel the building owners--who depend upon the city for licenses, contracts and subsidies--to agree to hire union contractors and to take responsibility for decent wages and working conditions for those workers brought in to clean their buildings.
The janitors' fight, replicated in this city's hotels, factories, hospitals and restaurants, is part of the structural exploitation of more than a million Latino and Asian workers whose personal suffering is ignored by employers who simply see them as "cheap labor." Their eventual rebellion is an explosion waiting to happen on the fault line of Los Angeles' fragile social structure.
While the janitors continue to organize, they need public support against far more powerful management forces. Professionals and tenants in the downtown buildings should demand that only union janitors clean their offices and that their landlords sign union contracts. Voters should make it clear to the politicians that besides ending the pollution of our air and water, we must stop the mistreatment of our working people if Los Angeles is to truly clean up its environment.