Janitors Mount Nationwide Fight
A janitors’ strike may soon be coming to your city. Five years ago, the Service Employees Union (SEIU) leadership adopted a strategy of negotiating contracts around the country that would expire within a few months of each other.
Now the time has come to test that strategy with, if necessary, nationally coordinated overlapping strikes. If successful, some 100,000 workers, including many women and foreign born, will see bigger raises and better benefits than they would otherwise.
The contract campaign was kicked off on April 5 in Los Angeles. SEIU Local 1877 (8500 members) struck for a $1 an hour raise in each of the next three years. The Los Angeles Times reported April 6, “Union janitors earn $6.80 to $7.90 per hour, and won full family benefits last year.” The union has mobilized thousands of protesters to take to the streets, marching, tying up traffic and blocking freeway ramps.
“A Department of Water and Power road crew stopped work to stand respectfully as the janitors passed. Even a police officer controlling the crowd briefly chanted sí se puede [yes we can], bobbing his head rhythmically as he waved the strikers on” ( LA Times, April 7). The AFL-CIO reported that an anonymous donor gave $500,000 to support the cause.
On April 24, the press reported that the janitors ratified a three-year contract that increases wages by $1.90 an hour in Los Angeles and by $1.50 in the suburbs.
Earlier, on April 18, thousands of downtown Chicago janitors struck to speed up their contract talks. The next day the strikers ratified a new contract that includes improved health benefits and a “pay increase of 45 cents in the first year, with increases of 35 cents in subsequent years. … In the Chicago suburbs, janitors are close to striking, and both sides said the main issue is health insurance for the 4500 suburban janitors, who make $6.65 an hour. … Union officials say similar labor unrest could occur in other cities, including New York [where 10,000 marched on April 12] Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia…” (AP, April 18).
The strikers, their low pay, and their depressed standard of living generally have received sympathetic press coverage. The New York Times on April 18 carried a lengthy account of the tough lives janitors endure in California’s Silicon Valley, an area that claims it spawns 250 new paper millionaires a week. The paper reports that workers are living in garages and that “the rent that many janitors pay for garages usually exceeds half their monthly take-home pay….
“[M]any janitors are relegated to squalid situations; eight people from two separate families sharing a small trailer; nine adults living in a one-bedroom apartment; a janitor sleeping on the floor of a friend’s metal-working shop; a janitor who says the single small window in the garage she lives in makes her think she is living in a prison cell.”
The SEIU local union in the area, with 5700 janitors, “is asking for raises that would lift the cleaners’ pay to $12.50 an hour after three years, from the current $8.”
The wealthy electronic companies whose buildings the janitors clean take no responsibility for the workers’ plight. The building owners say that the janitors do not work for them, but for cleaning contractors. “The janitors are not our employees,” one building manger told a reporter, “and we don’t comment upon other companies’ employees.” A cleaning contractor “acknowledged that low wages hurt the janitors, but he said that if a unionized company like his granted large raises, then nonunion companies might underbid him.”
Apparently The Times reporter didn’t ask why the building owners don’t require that the contractors’ bids include a minimum wage such as the $12.50 an hour the union wants. That would allow the unionized contractors to compete with the others, though it would reduce somebody’s profits.
But what the hell, nothing’s perfect. And besides, it’s for a good cause!
Korean Auto Strikers Need UAW Solidarity
On April 6, thousands of Daewoo Motor auto workers began a week-long strike, protesting the proposed sale of the Daewoo car company by creditor banks to General Motors or Ford. “Fearing such a sale would result in mass layoffs,” auto workers from Hundai, Kia, and Sangyong walked out in solidarity (Associated Press, April 9, 2000).
Reportedly, the strikers were demanding that Daewoo be nationalized or sold to a local company. The Korean government issued a “strong warning” against the strikers. “We will sternly deal with illegal strikes. … If the management of Daewoo Motor does not normalize soon, our auto industry will fall behind international competition.”
Clearly, Korean ruling circles are intent on protecting their investment in the domestic auto industry, even at the price of selling part of it to U.S. auto behemoths, prime advocates of lean and mean productivity policies.
“Government officials and Daewoo Motor creditors have indicated a foreign takeover of the automaker is desirable so that local industry could benefit from the introduction of advanced business practices foreign bidders offer” (Reuters, April 4).
Clearly, the Korean auto strikers could use some international solidarity, and fast. But no solidarity could be more potent than the solidarity of the U.S. United Auto Workers Union (UAW), headed by president Stephen Yokich.
A sympathy walkout by auto workers at Ford and General Motors, opposing the takeover of Daewoo, would not only tremendously raise the price of the proposed takeover to the U. S. firms; it would raise the level of international solidarity to a far higher level than the usual international conferences, paper resolutions, and token actions.
While such an international job-action would be astounding, it seemingly would be consistent with the AFL-CIO’s newly proclaimed “international solidarity with our brothers and sisters in emerging nations as well as in developed nations to create equitable, democratic, and sustainable growth.”
Moreover, it would signal that a major section of the U.S. labor officialdom has truly turned its back on narrow, job-trust protectionism, and is sincere when it claims its trade-policy proposals are essentially designed to back-up exploited workers everywhere.
Such a sign would be welcome, especially from the notorious auto workers leadership which has stridently opposed the import of union-made cars. In any event, if Ford or General Motors gains control over Daewoo, that control can be expected be used to pit the U.S. auto workers and Korean auto workers against one another, much as the auto firms today successfully play off UAW auto locals against each other for jobs.
The Korean strike offered the UAW leadership the opportunity to turn the tables on the auto bosses both here and overseas. That opportunity will come again in May when the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), which claims a membership of some 570,000, plans to go out on a general strike to back up the auto workers.
UAW Loses 80,000 Members
The auto workers’ (UAW) drive to increase its ranks hit a speedbump last year, despite successful organizing campaigns among college teaching assistants, and government and cafeteria workers. Despite recruiting 42,000 in 1999, the UAW membership dropped from 846,271 to 762,439, a 10 percent loss.
“GM trimmed 8900 hourly workers in 1999 and Delphi Automotive Systems cut 11,000 hourly jobs,” the Associated Press reported on April 18.
The report didn’t explain where the other losses occurred. Some industry observers predict that the new auto contracts settled last year will cost the union further losses, as much as 17 percent of today’s auto workforce.