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COLUMN ONE : For Militant Union, It's a War : Protesters scream and bang drums. Recruiters sneak into buildings. Decried by critics, the tactics of the Justice for Janitors campaign have been wildly successful.

August 19, 1993|SONIA NAZARIO | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

LOS ANGELES — Union organizer Ana Navarette often begins her sales pitch in a company's restroom, free from security cameras. After sneaking past guards, she spends hours hiding in a toilet stall until--around midnight--the roar of vacuum cleaners in the hallway signals that it is time to spring out and launch her appeal to the janitors she is trying to organize.

Today's battleground, however, is a parking lot. The target: Mattel Inc. in El Segundo.

"I'm calling the police!" shouts a security guard who spies the pint-sized Navarette lobbying workers as they arrive for work. Another guard brakes his pickup inches from her. "Get out of here," he snarls.

Moments later, two police cars flank Navarette, whose elbow was once broken as she was tossed off another company's property by security guards. El Segundo Officer Arthur C. Waters threatens jail time if she trespasses again.

Navarette shrugs. "I have to do my job," she says.

As unions struggle to survive a decade of plant closings and plummeting membership, Navarette's Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is doing its job remarkably well, engineering a stunning turnaround with its 6-year-old Justice for Janitors campaign. SEIU's biggest success story in its nationwide campaign is Los Angeles, which has seen its janitorial union ranks swell from 30% to 90% of those who clean high-rises in large swaths of the city--from Downtown to Century City.

To score that success, the union has defied a protracted recession in a region long hostile to unions, battling one of any city's most powerful groups--commercial real estate owners. It has unionized those considered toughest to crack: desperately poor immigrants, most of them illegal immigrant Latinas, who work in the dead of night.

The secret? Rejecting many standard union strategies, such as government-supervised elections, the AFL-CIO-affiliated union relies on militant tactics reminiscent of the 1930s.

Critics decry these methods as vicious and warn that they will cripple the economy if widely adopted by unions.

"The janitors campaign will wreck the cleaning industry by overpricing it--just as the manufacturing industry was overpriced by high labor costs," warned George Vallen, chief executive officer of Beverly Hills' non-union Advance Building Maintenance Inc., which cleans Mattel, Hughes Aircraft Co. and about 70 other businesses.

JMB Realty Co. has seen cleaning costs at its Century City and Beverly Hills buildings jump 70% since the buildings went union in 1990, said JMB labor counsel Fred Richman.

"As cleaning companies go union, they pass their increased costs on to us. Ultimately, the price of doing business is reflected in the cost of the product--whether it is a car or a toy," said Michael Durik, Mattel's senior vice president for human resources and administration.

Labor leaders, however, see the Justice for Janitors campaign as a desperately needed model for unions, particularly in the fast-growing, low-wage service jobs that make up a third of the U.S. work force.

"They are a real inspiration to the labor movement. Employers who once said 'over my dead body,' recognize and negotiate with them," said Maria Elena Durazo, president of the Los Angeles Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 11. Such strategies, she said, are essential for labor to survive the '90s when, a UC Santa Barbara study predicts, unionized private workers' ranks may shrivel from 11.5% to 5% of the labor force.

The campaign has yet to move to Orange County, where the union already represents janitors at Disneyland and some local supermarket chains. The reason: All the union's money and organizers are tied up in much bigger Los Angeles, said Jono Shaffer, organizing coordinator for the union.

The union, Shaffer said, has already encountered some Orange County-based building owners or managers in Los Angeles, like Newport Beach's Koll Co. And some of the big janitorial companies in Los Angeles that the union is trying to organize also do business in Orange County.

But so far San Jose and the nearby Silicon Valley are the only other urban area in the state to which the union has taken its campaign.

"We've talked about Orange County," said Shaffer, "but for right now we've focused our resources in Los Angeles."

*

Late one evening, Navarette, clad in her red satin union jacket, slips past a janitorial company supervisor into a tiny basement room of the Los Angeles International Airport Business Center's parking lot. The cleaning crew is receptive.

In this luxury building, the janitors eat in a tiny cinder-block room piled high with bottles of pink and blue cleaning chemicals. There is no table; four chairs do for twice as many workers. The janitors, employed by Advance Building Maintenance, make $4.25 an hour, with no health benefits, sick days or vacation time.

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