Students March with Striking Janitors
By MICHAEL SCHWARTZ
LOS ANGELES-In April, approximately 10,000 janitors in LA county were on strike. Youth for Socialist Action (YSA) has been as active as possible supporting the strike. YSA members marched with the janitors on several occasions.
There were some amazing marches. It’s so beautiful to watch workers realize the power that they hold. In one march thousands of workers demanding a better life shut down one of the busiest streets in Los Angeles.
We’ve helped collect money for the strike, and we’ve used that money to purchase food for the striking janitors and their families.
Though the money we raised wasn’t a large amount, our help was greatly appreciated. We’ve spoken with union organizers, and with striking janitors. Our faces are familiar ones to quite a few people. As Socialist Action and the YSA grow, we will have a stronger presence at labor movements in the city.
This has been a remarkable few weeks for the working class of Los Angeles. The janitors are known to almost everyone in the United States, and have the support of a majority of the population. It seems the janitors are on their way to a partial victory. Management is cracking to the demands of labor, and this truly is an inspiration to the working class all over this country.
Janitors are the invisible workers of this country. But right now they’re being heard. The janitors that clean 70 percent of the office buildings in Los Angeles were on strike.
The janitor’s lives are completely unknown to most people. Late at night, after the office buildings are officially closed, tens of thousands of people begin their workday. For eight hours a night they work with hazardous chemicals cleaning the office buildings of corporate America.
I interviewed janitors, union organizers, and even some capitalists. The feelings that were expressed by the workers are that they are exploited every day. A lot of these people work a 12-hour shift. Four hours is spent on public transportation just to get to the job.
Right now the janitors that are on strike are paid $6.80 an hour. What that means is that people who are working full time-eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year-are taking home about $13,000 a year after taxes. It is almost impossible for a single person to live on wages that low. Yet the building owners expect these workers, many who are people raising families, to be content.
As a student I receive more financial aid than these people make working full time. Many people don’t understand how it’s possible that people who are working full time are living below the poverty line: Welcome to the world of the working poor.
The interesting fact is that when you adjust for inflation these janitors were making the equivalent of $12 dollars an hour 15 years ago. As this country has seen “record prosperity” the wages of working people have gone down, not up.
So, we have a situation in which people saw their pay reduced by almost half. Their response was to build a strong union, and they have.
The union is demanding a one dollar an hour wage increase each of the next three years. Under this plan they will be at $9.80 an hour in the year 2003-still far below what they received in 1986.
“Foolish, I think they’re foolish. These people aren’t worth anything, they’re replaceable.” This is what I was told by an older white man in a suit while thousands of people were marching, putting their jobs on the line, in order to receive a wage that they can live on. But in his hostility he pointed out the mentality of those who run the show. It’s called maximizing your profits at all costs. It’s a natural part of capitalism.
But another natural part of capitalism is the struggle of working people, and that’s what we’re witnessing right now. As Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine said, as thousands of people cheered: “This struggle will not end until the people who clean the offices are making as much as those who dirty the offices”.
This struggle is about us standing together and saying we will not allow people to be exploited in this way. We will not live in a world where people who work 40 hours a week, people who scrub dirty floors and toilets, people on whose backs wealth is created are paid poverty wages. We will not allow it. The working people of this city, of this country, and of this world will not allow it.
The janitors strike is being watched closely by other working people throughout this nation. Janitors in many different cities are set to go on strike, and other workers are watching as well. This strike was an inspiration to trash collectors in another city in LA County. They walked off their job and saw their demands met a day later.
As we marched there were many other working people who were in complete solidarity with the strike. The California Teacher’s Association was there. The Teamster’s Union was there. There are many UPS drivers who will not deliver packages to the office buildings that the janitors clean. Bus drivers we passed honked their horn in support.
Construction workers, service employees, bike messengers, food workers, security guards, and other workers were all in support of the strike. They recognized their common position in our society.
As I write this article, the teacher’s union of LA County is set to go on strike. Tens of thousands of teachers are getting ready to walk off the job. The TAs throughout the UC system are involved in a labor dispute; if the UCs continue to treat them the way they have we might see them go on strike. Recently, 500 LA nurses walked off the job to protest their lack of a contract.
All these causes are linked. In this “booming economy” millions and millions of people are being left behind, and they aren’t going to take it lying down.
This struggle is about the people who have to work the jobs on the “bottom.” As socialists we distinguish ourselves by emphasizing that there should be no “bottom” jobs and no “bottom” people.
People have to remember that it’s the workers who create all of the wealth in our society. I want you to think about something-if the minimum wage had increased at the same level as CEO salaries have increased in the last seven years, the minimum wage would be $52 an hour today!
It’s really great to remind people who really has the power-the workers. It’s not “capital” that creates, it’s labor. I’ve never seen a dollar bill transform wood into a house.
The capitalists can want big buildings, but workers have to build them. The building owners can want really clean buildings, but workers have to clean them. In fact, everything that the capitalist class desires requires workers in order to be carried out.
We are in the midst of a powerful strike. This is a movement by a group of human beings who are telling the capitalists that they can’t live on the wages they’re being paid. They’re telling them they’re sick of choosing between food and medicine for their children. They’re not asking for pity. They’re rising up and demanding a better life.
These people are an inspiration to us and to workers everywhere. Let us never forget that it’s the working class that holds all the power in this world. Justice for janitors, and justice for workers everywhere!