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Leader of the Revolutionary Pack

Mike Garcia And His Janitors' Union Are Breathing New Life Into the U.S. Labor Movement

August 13, 2000|NANCY CLEELAND | Nancy Cleeland is a Times staff writer who covers labor

Need help understanding the new dynamics of power in Los Angeles? You might start with the men and women vacuuming the convention hall carpet every night. Or the uniformed janitors dumping trash at the airport. Or the cleaning crews filing into downtown office towers at dusk.

L.A.'s immigrant janitors are the shock troops of a union offensive that is shaking up local politics and forcing major economic players to rethink their behavior toward folks at the bottom. And, just as European immigrants did on that other coast a century ago, the janitors are breathing new life into the U.S. labor movement. Politicians of both parties would do well to take note of L.A.'s newest trend.

Leading the charge is a modest and methodical labor activist, a man who was born for this revolution.

His name is Mike Garcia, and he runs a statewide janitors' local with 22,000 members. He's been busy lately--staging a groundbreaking three-week strike in Los Angeles in April, negotiating a contract with titans of the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley in May, then skipping down to nonunion office parks in Orange County to recruit new members.

If he were one to drop names, he would tell you that he's friendly with Mayor Richard Riordan, half of the City Council, scores of state legislators and a bevy of religious leaders. But Garcia is more likely to mention Rosa Alvarenga and Pablo Inocente, married rank-and-file activists who came north from El Salvador a decade ago and now clean offices for the entertainment industry, or any of the hundreds of janitors Garcia counts as friends. "They're the real heroes," he insists. "I just happened to be at the right place at the right time."

Perhaps. But even Garcia will concede that every movement needs a leader, someone who's able to shape the restless energy of individuals into a tangible and focused force for change. For that, he is perfectly suited.

He was born in East Los Angeles 49 years ago to a working-class family. His father was a factory hand and proud union member who earned enough to support a stay-at-home wife and three children and eventually move the family to a quiet suburb in the San Fernando Valley.

Garcia began work when he turned 16, holding a series of low-wage, low-skill jobs that taught him to respect physical labor. One of his first was as a night janitor. "I'll never forget the tedium of those menial jobs and the exploitation I saw there," he says.

For several years, Garcia wandered in and out of college with no clear goals. Then he had a fateful meeting with Rudy Acuna, a demanding and inspiring professor of Chicano Studies at Cal State Northridge, who, more than 20 years later, still preaches the importance of giving back to the community. Garcia took that message to heart.

He graduated and went on to San Jose State to pursue a master's degree in social work, but he soon grew frustrated with the limitations of community organizing. He found himself drawn to the labor activists he'd met during a school-related internship, and bucking the tenor of the times, he took a job as an organizer at the Service Employees International Union, Local 77, a struggling janitors' group in San Jose.

The year was 1980, Ronald Reagan was president and organized labor was taking a beating. "There weren't too many victories," Garcia recalls. "Elections were almost impossible to win, especially with an undocumented work force."

He encountered another hostile element in a surprising place: the leadership of his own movement. "In those days, Latinos were pretty much barred from the labor movement. Outside of the United Farm Workers, it wasn't easy for any of us."

Memories of his own days pushing a mop, as well as the gratitude of the immigrant janitors he tried to help, kept Garcia at his SEIU job. But it was lonely, dispiriting work. By the mid-1980s, labor was in a tailspin. Manufacturing jobs that were once solidly union disappeared almost overnight, lost to defense cutbacks, new technology or the draw of cheaper overseas labor. The national economy was showing signs of weakness. Anti-immigrant sentiment was growing.

Struggling to protect what they had left, few unions were actively recruiting new members. Those that did were often confronted by sophisticated management consultants whose trade was flourishing. Labor was forced into a wrenching period of self-reflection that would lead to profound changes in the movement. And by a stroke of luck, or fate, Garcia found himself at the cutting edge of that change.

John Sweeney, the son of a maid and a bus driver who would eventually lead the national AFL-CIO into an era of aggressive growth, had taken over the helm of SEIU. Andrew Stern, the current SEIU president, was Sweeney's organizing director. They had a plan to resuscitate labor, and they chose the janitorial industry to start.

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