Justice for Janitors
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Justice for Janitors (JfJ) is a social movement organization that fights for the rights of janitors (caretakers and cleaners) across the US and Canada. It was started in 1985 in response to the low wages and minimal health-care coverage that janitors received. Justice for Janitors includes more than 225,000 janitors in at least 29 cities in the United States and at least four cities in Canada. Members have fought and continue to fight for better wages, better conditions, improved health-care, and full-time opportunities. The movement utilizes its extensive memberships as well as prominent leaders in the communities to accomplish its goals.
The Justice for Janitors campaigns are organized under a larger union: the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). SEIU has almost two million members and is a significant part of the labor movement. SEIU is an asset to the Justice for Janitors campaign as it organizes members as well as trains them in necessary workplace skills such as language proficiency. SEIU is also a substantial part of the labor movement in that it retains constructive partnerships with the corporations employing the janitors to ensure that these corporations receive no negative impact due to the campaigns.
In the United Kingdom a similar movement is called "Justice for Cleaners".
Cleaners in Australia, through their union United Voice, are running a similar campaign called Clean Start: Fair Deal for Cleaners. This landmark campaign has won the support of community, faith and political leaders and has helped improve the jobs and lives of thousands of cleaners across Australia. Clean Start began in 2006 with cleaners working in city office buildings. It has now moved to cleaners working in Australia's big shopping malls.
The structure used by SEIU for its Justice for Janitors campaigns has been widely recognized for its innovativeness and success. As the labor movement was struggling to gain membership to unions, new models of organizing workers had to be developed. The SEIU strived to increase union membership and participation. The Justice for Janitors campaign utilizes a bottom-up model in which they organize workers based on geographical area rather than just their worksite. It is also an innovative model in that it makes typically unnoticed workers visible and groups them together into larger collections in order to better fight the larger corporations. SEIU also provides trained organizers that are often sent to local unions in order to skillfully organize efforts. The Justice for Janitors campaigns often use disruptive tactics to get their point across.
The campaigns of Justice for Janitors also use master contracts that are market-wide. One contract in a certain market will apply to all union janitors across that market. This allows union workers to fight for different rights while applying any accomplishments to all workers in that market.
The Janitors for Justice campaign began with Stephen Lerner, a former United Farm Workers organizer and later head of SEIU’s janitorial division in D.C. Lerner was placed in Denver for his first janitor’s organizing drive. Lerner acknowledges the influence of his work with UFW, and JfJ "was enormously influenced by the tactics…of the farmworkers movement." Janitors for Justice employed UFW tactics, such as vivid imagery of the exploitation of workers, demonstrations, street theater, hunger strikes, vigils, blockades, clergy-labor alliance, and community organizing. JfJ even adopted the rallying cry of the UFW: "¡Sí se puede!" 
Los Angeles campaign
During the 1980s, janitors working for large real estate owners had become victims of competition and lowered wages. The large real estate companies sent out cleaning services to the building service contractors. These contractors were in high competition with each other and therefore cut wages for their cleaning services. This placed janitors in a situation that they had no power to change: If they attempted to ask the service contractors for higher wages, the contractors would pass the responsibility to the real estate owners. If the janitors inquired the owners about increasing their wages, the owners would say that it was the responsibility of the contractors.
In 1983, an average janitor working in LA had a salary of over $7.00/hour and full health insurance for the janitor and his/her family. By 1986, the janitorial wages had been cut to a mere $4.50/hour, and health care coverage was no longer an option. By the late 1980s, janitors began to fight against these large owners and contractors. Janitors that were members of the SEIU joined together in the Justice for Janitors campaign using militant and direct action tactics. They wanted to hold both the owners and the contractors accountable.
The Justice for Janitors campaign came from Denver to LA in 1988. They worked in downtown to represent the union base and organize the non-union companies. The Justice for Janitors organizers focused on “double-breasted” companies, which were “firms with both union and nonunion operations under different names.” The first campaign was directed toward Century Cleaning.
The official strike of Janitors for Justice in Los Angeles began on April 3, 1990. The janitors marched and held demonstrations during the daytime for the 3 weeks. To help their cause, many religious leaders, community leaders, and politicians joined the action of the janitors and supported their protests. The archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, held a special mass for the janitors. Also, mayor Richard Riordan joined the campaign by voicing his support for the janitors and their union. The janitors in Los Angeles stayed on strike until April 22. By this time, they had reached a contract that guaranteed at least a 22% raise over the next three years.
The Los Angeles strike was significant to the future of Justice for Janitors as it spurred a nationwide campaign involving over 100,000 SEIU janitors in 2000. The campaign sought to raise wages for all janitors as well as improve overall working conditions. SEIU's Los Angeles Justice for Janitors campaign was portrayed in the motion picture Bread and Roses.
Currently, many janitors in Houston, Texas are organizing through the Justice for Janitors campaigns. In July 2005, Houston janitors secured a check and neutrality agreement from the five largest cleaning contractors in Houston. In November 2005, four of the five contractors recognized SEIU as representing a majority of each contractor's workers, and in December, the fifth contractor did as well.
In 2005 in Houston, the average janitor was earning an hourly salary of $5.25, compared to $20 in New York and $13.30 in Philadelphia and Chicago. The success of the Houston campaign was surprising due to the South’s history of resistance to unionization and hostility to labor. The success of service employees was decreasing in 2005, as the percentage of private-sector workers dropped to 7.9. Julius Getman, a labor law professor at the University of Texas, says the Justice for Janitors effort is "the largest unionization campaign in the South in years.” The AFL-CIO attempted a campaign in the 1980s known as the Houston Organizing Project, as the companies fought hard during a suffering economy to defeat the unionization effort.
The Houston campaign succeeded with the help of prominent allies in the community, a common tactic used by the SEIU. They received the support from the mayor of Houston, several congressmen, clergymen, such as Joseph Fiorenza, the Roman Catholic archbishop. The clergy-labor alliance is a strong tactic first used by the UFW and Cesar Chavez, and it has been adopted by numerous labor groups because it helps gain support from the community by legitimizing the effort as a spiritual quest for justice. For example, Archbishop Fiorenza said in an interview about the Houston campaign that it is "basic justice and fairness that the wages should be increased." He held a special mass for janitors and spoke at the union’s kick-off rally. The workers in Houston were also aided by pickets in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere, where workers for the same employers refused to cross picket lines in solidarity with their fellow janitors in Houston.
On November 20, 2006, a few days after dozens of strikers and their supporters were arrested by Houston police while engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience, a tentative agreement was reached between striking Houston janitors and employers. The proposed settlement included many concessions from employers, and SEIU was quick to declare victory.
The University of Miami Justice for Janitors campaign officially began in February 2006. However, the precursors to this effort began as early as October 2001, when the University of Miami Faculty Senate began passing declarations to the University of Miami president, Donna Shalala. The declarations suggested that the university comply with the Miami-Dade County Living Wage Ordinance. At this time, there was little response to the resolutions provided.
In February 2005, SEIU janitors began organizing at both Miami Beach condominiums, employed by Continental Group, as well as janitors working for the University of Miami. SEIU also used the help of the South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice (SFIWJ). By the fall of 2005, they had also enlisted the help of students at the University of Miami. An organization called STAND, Students Toward a New Democracy, had members attend direct action training workshops in San Francisco, paid for by SEIU. STAND had managed to rally over 300 students for an email list and received 800 signatures from undergraduates on a petition demanding better worker pay.
On February 26, 2006, the janitors issued an unfair labor practice strike that would last nine weeks. Many of the professors at the University of Miami signed a pledge to support the strike. This meant that the professors would be holding classes off-campus in order to avoid crossing the janitors’ picket lines.
On March 16, 2006, Shalala compensated and announced a wage raise of at least 25%. SEIU celebrated this gain, but they contained to prepare for further action at the University of Miami.
On March 28, the tactics finally began to receive significant media attention. Clergy and students began the blocking of traffic on U.S. Route 1. Because the activists were blocking this major highway, 17 of the activists were arrested. At the same time as the highway-blocking took place, students were infiltrating the University of Miami admissions office. Here, the students argued with Shalala for four hours until she finally agreed to attend a meeting to discuss the current situation.
The last stage of the campaign consisted of hunger strikes that led the University of Miami to feel a sense of crisis. Many of the strike's participants were hospitalized as a result of their extensive fasting.
Due to the escalating sense of crisis on the university’s campus, Shalala finally gave in. She proposed an even higher pay increase along with health benefits and a generous holiday break including paid personal days and paid holidays.
The multiple Justice for Janitors campaigns have made many developments for janitors across the country. SEIU has worked with immigrant janitors, providing English language programs. SEIU also provides classes for janitors to help improve their computer skills. So far, 27 master contracts have been made with commercial cleaning contractors across the country. These contracts have helped to increase wages as well as health benefits for the janitors. The contracts have also created full-time jobs for some previously part-time workers. All of these accomplishments have led to an ensured stability for the labor force.
Janitors continue to be poorly paid and to work without benefits in many cities, both in the United States and in countries such as Canada.
Criticism of the Justice for Janitors campaign is typically centered around non-democratic union processes and quick, trigger agreements. When local Service Employees International Union officials refused to participate in Justice for Janitor campaigns, their supervisors would remove them from office, and replace them with "trustees to run the locals, then running the trustees for the presidency." At this time, the SEIU merged many smaller city or local offices, into regional or state wide offices, reaching multiple industries, making it difficult for rank and file individuals to compete for organizational and office positions with the more formal, staff run organizations. Those concerned over trigger agreements worried that the agreements were too lenient, giving too many concessions to the contractors. Criticism of the trigger agreements was quickly snuffed out after the SEIU won a rolling strike for healthcare benefits in 2000. Furthermore, despite successes elsewhere, Justice for Janitors has struggled to create and maintain campaigns in the American South and in suburban areas where janitorial services have grown at rate beyond the organizing capacity of SEIU. Another criticism of the SEIU is they unfairly use tactics against companies that cost jobs, diverting company resources into expensive legal battles.
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- Justice for Janitors Canada
- Service Employees International Union
- Justice for Janitors and
- About Justice for Janitors
- SEIU Local 1
- SEIU 32BJ
- SEIU Local 1877
- LA Times article on 1990 Century City strike
- Finding Aid for the Service Employees International Union, United Service Workers West records, ca. 1935-2008, UCLA Special Collections.
- Donde Haiga un Trabajador Explotado, Ahí Estaré Yo: Justice for Janitors' Workers, Organizers, and Allies, interview series documenting the Justice for Janitors movement in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the present day, Center for Oral History Research, UCLA Library Special Collections, University of California, Los Angeles.
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