In the movie version of his life, Jono Shaffer hopped into a trash cart to evade an anti-union supervisor played by George Lopez. Adrien Brody was earnest Sam Shapiro, the Shaffer character in "Bread and Roses," the man who helped Los Angeles janitors win higher wages and benefits.
"I didn't do those kinds of crazy things," Shaffer says.
But press him and the 47-year-old will share some real-life escapades, like the day in December 1989 when he donned a Santa Claus suit and strolled into the offices of a Century City building manager with a crowd of giggling children in tow. The receptionist was initially thrilled to see him. But when Santa reached into his bag and pulled out rubber gloves for the building's janitors, she called security to remove him.
By 1995, Justice for Janitors, part of a nationwide effort led by the Service Employees International Union, had lifted wages for 7,000 L.A. County cleaners, many of them illegal immigrants, and won them paid vacation time and family health insurance. The janitors' three-week strike in 2000 -- the year the movie came out -- pushed hourly pay to about $12 in downtown L.A.
"A lot of people thought you couldn't organize undocumented workers," says Ruth Milkman, a UCLA professor who directs the Institute of Industrial Relations. "Not only has it been done but it's inspired other immigrant organizing around the country. Jono was clearly a central if not the central organizer of that effort."
The SEIU deputy director is orchestrating another breakthrough, with a new SEIU local representing 4,000 guards who patrol about 700 area office buildings. They join 25,000 SEIU-member guards in seven cities, part of a campaign that Shaffer conceived a decade ago.
The local's goal: To boost pay and benefits for guards to parity with the janitors working in many of the same buildings and for the same contractors.
Despite the victories, and "Bread and Roses," Shaffer doesn't have the star power of some labor leaders, and that's how he wants it. But the apple-cheeked, self-effacing father of two has every bit of the clout.
"In some respects, he's a legend," says David Sickler, senior labor advisor to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Sickler calls Shaffer a "truly gifted organizer" who grooms local talent -- and then ducks out of the limelight.
The janitors' campaign was classic Shaffer.
"He always pushed us to the front, saying, 'This is your fight. I'm giving you the tools so you can defend yourself,' " says Dolores Sanchez, who was one of the 3,000 picketers.
The campaign reflected Shaffer's view that the traditional, multi-step election process spelled out in the National Labor Relations Act "doesn't work for workers."
"The only fair way for workers to organize is to do it in public, take action and engage in demonstrations," he says.
The janitors' win was also due to Shaffer's analysis of the economic forces that had remade the commercial cleaning business. Janitors, mostly African Americans, earned union wages and benefits until building owners in the 1970s began to contract with national operators that took advantage of the immigrant workforce. Wages plummeted and benefits disappeared.
Shaffer figured the contractors would respond only to pressure from building owners, and that they would cave only when picketers made tenants -- lawyers, brokers, doctors, studio executives -- uncomfortable about how little the people who emptied their waste baskets earned.
Contractor Richard Dotts, president of DMS Facility Services in South Pasadena, credits Shaffer with "understanding the economic pressures we faced from building owners."
The janitors soon out-earned the guards, who average $8.50 an hour. Shaffer recalls how guards implored him to "come back for us" as they evicted chanting cleaners.
But first he had to overcome hard feelings. Most L.A.-area security guards are African American. Many had been janitors, part of a now-defunct SEIU local that building contractors broke by hiring Latinos willing to work for less. Some guards resented the SEIU, which they saw as favoring immigrants.
"Here we are Americans, we've lived here our whole lives, and we couldn't unionize," says Jacquelyne Johnson, a Pasadena security guard for 17 years.
She says Shaffer, who is middle-class and Jewish, helped smooth the resentment by showing "that we all want the same thing."
Shaffer won janitor Rosa Ayala's loyalty too. She said she saw police bloody Shaffer -- once again dressed as Santa Claus -- when she and others leafleted a Pasadena mall in 1993.
"He's a white guy who didn't have to do this," Ayala said, "but he put his whole heart into it."
Shaffer earned his stripes by building houses in the Central Valley and in Nicaragua after college and repairing Section 8 apartments in Oakland. In 1986, by now a fluent Spanish speaker, he started organizing L.A. garment workers.