Justice for Janitors Day Marks 25th Anniversary in L.A.

Los Angeles Police Beat a Justice for Janitors Protester in Century City, 1990 | Photo: Justice for Janitors History Project

June 15, 2015 marks the 25th anniversary of Justice for Janitors Day, a day that commemorates the many historic social justice actions, demonstrations, and events that positioned Los Angeles and the low-wage janitor struggle as a critical chapter in U.S. labor history. On this day, back in 1990, over 400 striking janitors, primarily Central American immigrants, members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 399, demonstrated peacefully in an effort to improve the living standards for their families by unionizing their employer International Service System (ISS), the contractor responsible for servicing most of L.A.'s office buildings at the time.

The demonstration followed two weeks of intense organizing efforts by janitors and took place in Century City, a region in west Los Angeles that houses corporate office towers of the wealthiest businesses in the country. At first, the rally appeared to be another event in line with the organizing efforts of the strike, yet, this particular rally propelled the janitors' struggle to the national spotlight when members were confronted and injured by fifty police officers who were equipped with batons. In total, 38 janitors were injured during the incident, and many were arrested during the altercation. The violent images quickly began circulating across media outlets across the country and led to an increased public support for the janitors cause.

Story continues below

Rather than back down after the confrontation, janitors remained on the streets and were eventually joined by over 2,500 supporters and prominent leaders, including Jesse Jackson, who publicly decried the meager wages janitors were earning at the time -- some as little at $4.50 per hour. The janitors' dedicated efforts, coupled with the widespread community support and the public outrage over the police brutality, resulted in janitors receiving an increase of wages over $2 per hour, full family health coverage, and the ratification of a union contract with ISS.

"Our efforts that day and all of the efforts leading up to that action, represented a fight for dignity and respect," explained Jose Garcia, a janitor who was present at the march on June 15, 1990, and still services the industry today. "On this day we finally had a voice on the job and we were able to show the nation and the world that we were on the side of justice." Garcia further explained that prior to this victory, janitors in Los Angeles did not have any control over working conditions, low wages, and were subjected to numerous abuses by employers. Since then, unionized L.A. janitors earn between $12-$14 per hour, and form part of SEIU-United Service Workers West (USWW).

Janitors March with Religious, Political, and Labor Leaders | Photo: Justice for Janitors History Project

After 25 years, June 15 is remembered with admiration and passion as a national model for low-wage immigrant worker organizing. "The Justice for Janitors campaign represented a historic breakthrough in organizing undocumented immigrant workers," explained Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, "and led to a new wave of union victories in low wage industries of Los Angeles."

Prior to the Justice for Janitors campaign, the power of organizing immigrant workers had been underestimated. "This campaign recalibrated the labor movement and proved that organizing immigrant workers, from the ground up, would be a critical and fundamental part of growing and strengthening the labor movement," explained David Huerta, the SEIU-USWW's current president.

The efforts of L.A. janitors have not ceased. SEIU-USWW continues to spearhead innovative programs and campaigns. Janitors remain committed to ensuring that L.A.'s janitorial industry remains sustainable in an environment where employers constantly develop work arrangements and schedules intended to increase workloads. Over the years, L.A.-based janitors have supported efforts to improve wage and working conditions in other regions across the state, including Orange County and San Diego -- regions that are still pushing to acquire the same gains that have been secured in Los Angeles.

Janitors are central to major campaigns and labor issues impacting workers throughout the state. SEIU-USWW has been actively working on the Fight for $15 campaign, a local and national effort to increase the wages of Los Angeles workers, linked to the statewide fight to eliminate wage-theft practice across numerous labor sectors. Given the janitors' immigrant backgrounds, their local union chapter (USWW) has also been heavily involved in numerous immigrant-rights campaigns.

In addition to labor and political fights, janitors are concerned with community issues, such as improving the educational outcomes their children and their families. Currently, a cohort of janitors is participating in a program that focuses on early childhood education through janitor parent engagement. The Parent Worker Program exposes janitors and their children to workshops, field trips, and cultural activities held at worksites, schools, and the union hall. Janna Shadduck-Hernández, the Director of the Project based out of the UCLA Labor Center, explains that "the program represents a low-cost way for employers to invest in their workers, and would have the potential to start a workplace model and a national trend around the workplace being the focal point where we can shine new light onto the crisis in early education."

For more than 25 years, L.A. janitors have continued to represent hope in the face of struggle in this city. "Everyday our members continue to reimagine what is possible and that we shouldn't underestimate the power of committed organized workers," shared Huerta, when asked about the most important lessons that being involved in this movement has taught him.

This week, Los Angeles janitors will commemorate Justice for Janitors Day and their historic win for labor rights with a series of activities, including a vigil in Century City and a massive commemorative march.

For further information, you can visit this Facebook event page.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading