Justice for Janitors campaign: open-sourcing labour conflicts against global neo-liberalism

New forms of shared strategy and campaigning are taking on the worst effects of fiercely competitive neoliberal service economies. Globalization from above can be fought and resisted effectively by processes of globalization from below

During the 1980s, American major cities were transforming into fiercely competitive free-market neoliberal service economies.  In the cleaning world this meant that janitors - the women and men that clean the key business and financial centers in the U.S. - were outsourced by building owners to highly competitive cleaning companies almost overnight.  Jobs that had been well paid (with benefits) and had provided a dignified life for thousands of African-American unionized workers became part-time, low-wage, highly exploitative jobs held by newly-arrived migrants from all over world, but primarily from Latin America and undocumented.      

The Justice for Janitors campaign was therefore born as a strategic response to a profoundly changing economy, to a new labour force and rapidly declining union power. This challenge called for a different type of unionization, for daring experimentation and for a union willing to take a political stance to invest resources in organizing migrant workers, instead of blaming them for lowering standards (as other unions were doing at that time).  SEIU (Service Employees International Union) launched the Justice for Janitors campaign in the mid 1980’s and began to organize thousands of dispersed workers across major city markets to fight for social and economic justice. Experienced organizers coming from community organizing backgrounds and well-known campaigns (such as the United Farm Workers) began to implement a similar social unionism model in the urban zones.  Organizers visited migrant workers in their homes, identified organic leaders, built strong committees and consolidated the existing experience, leadership and organizing skills of the newly-arrived Central American migrants, who had been involved in their own political struggles.

In California this synergy proved powerful and workers began to unite in large numbers both in, and outside of, the workplace. Workers also began to develop broad support for their campaigns in their own neighborhoods, churches and community centers.  They also learned to build strong participatory alliances with other social movements, minority groups, unions, politicians, artists, and academics - such as Mike Davis and Ed Soja from UCLA and others - who encouraged their students to join workplace struggles and helped developed a new generation of union researchers, many of whom are still contributing to the labour movement today.  Whilst the following discussion is drawn primarily from my experiences in the west of the USA, that experience is also illustrative of the other Justice campaigns across the country. 

Bread and Roses

The campaigns principally aimed to make this invisible (and largely migrant) workforce highly visible in the public sphere by undertaking well-organized strikes and creative direct action in crucial sites of capital accumulation.  Many of these actions were done in public spaces in the financial districts of major cites and the lobbies of skyscrapers.  The actions were loud and full of music, chanting and dignified defiance.  The 2000 film by Ken Loach (Bread and Roses) captures the atmosphere of these actions very well. 

The campaign came to understand very early on that victory would not be easily achieved by only fighting against the cleaning companies (the traditional targets in these kinds of disputes).  Instead, if the fight was to be strategic, it had to aim at the building owners themselves - who were increasingly consolidating their market share and ultimately had the final economic decision over the cleaning contract costs.  Workers and allies made delegations to these cleaning company clients and asked tenants for their support.  At the same time, politicians and religious leaders asked building owners to act in a socially responsible manner, whilst workers performed street theater and organized vigils and actions (that often escalated into powerful strikes) using tactical civil disobedience with effective media strategies.  

What was particularly powerful in these campaigns was that workers really spoke for themselves.  Union officials were certainly not the focal points of the conflict.  Workers spoke to the public not only about raises but about their collective desire to “rise out of poverty”, have the right for healthcare and earn respect for their hard work and contribution to the economy, all messages that resonated well with the public.  In addition, the workers in these campaigns never acted alone but always acted in alliance with other supporters - who amplified and validated their demands to different publics - and with their families (including their children).  As a result, with family members and supporters always present, the actions served to positively demonstrate who stood to benefit from these victories and what kind of communities we were building.  These types of transversal organizational practices came through trial and error.  In the beginning of the struggles, janitors were often intimidated, threatened with deportation and at times beaten up by the police, as in the case of the famous Century City conflict of 15 June 1990 in Los Angeles.  Yet it was these types of initial experiments that helped create the types of broad solidarity movements that were crucial to the success of the later campaigns.

The impacts of the Justice for Janitors campaigns were tremendously important for both the workers involved and the unions and other groups that supported them. In organising terms, the campaigns were a resounding success.  They were responsible for organizing more than 225,000 janitors in more than 30 cities throughout the U.S and Canada.  They were responsible for raising industry standards and transforming poverty wages into dignified wages in 27 master contracts.  While most Americans were losing their healthcare coverage, janitors were actually winning family healthcare benefits (paid for by building owners) and showing unions that they could win again. And if the janitors - who were largely undocumented workers - could do it, then anyone could. 

Fight back global strategy

The Justice for Janitors campaigns also helped catalyze a necessary discussion in the labour movement about the urgent need to change, grow, and organize.  The strategy of using nationally-coordinated rolling strikes against key multi-national building owners, corporate clients and cleaning helped the campaign not only win breakthrough contracts but also new organizing opportunities in unorganized cities. This proved to be an important experience when SEIU and UNI began doing similar global coordination work and campaigns to get common multinational employers such as ISS (from Denmark) and key clients (headquartered in the most important cities in Europe and the U.S.) to sign onto Socially Responsible Contractor Global Agreements.   

Furthermore, the power of the janitors and other migrant worker unions – such as HERE (the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union) and the Farm Workers – helped create a powerful and ongoing political movement for the legalization of undocumented migrants.  These key unions were principal players in the major marches and political campaigns for legalization and against migration controls at local and state levels along with other migrant rights groups.

Overall, the Justice for Janitors campaign helped develop a fight back strategy against the consequences of privatization and the neoliberal attack on labor standards in the service sector.  As a result, similar strategies began proliferating and being used by progressive unions (both in the US and, then, abroad) in order to organize private security officers who were working side by side with the janitors and food service workers.  Between 2004 and 2005, for example, the Justice for Janitors campaign and the newly launched SEIU Security Workers campaign went global.  We were soon able to get support from the Swedish Transport Workers Union to help us win organizing rights in the U.S. from Securitas - one of the largest security companies in the world.   At the same time, we began a campaign to organize Group Four Securicor globally with the support of Swiss based UNI (the service sector global labour federation) which help coordinate various efforts in the U.S., India, South Africa, Malawi and Indonesia among others. 

Simultaneously we also started to generate international support for the SEIU campaign that we were engaged in – the Janitors campaign in Houston, Texas who had been striking to win their first contract.  The Houston campaign was particularly significant because it was the first contract to be contested in the Republican controlled south and was targeting the two most important building owners in the city (Chevron and Hines Real Estate Property) in order to bring the deal home.  We were able to organize support actions in 10 different cities across Europe and Latin America with allied unions and social movements in places like Berlin (with No One is Illegal) and Milan (with Chainworkers) in support of the Houston strikers.  Internationalization of the conflict came to be understood as an important element in winning this campaign. We were beginning to understand that globalization from above could be fought and resisted effectively by processes of globalization from below.

“Justice for Cleaners”

With the success of previous and new campaigns, other unions in different countries really began to notice.  In 2005, for example, the Transport and General Workers Union in the United Kingdom (now called UNITE) asked SEIU to help them develop their own “Justice for Cleaners” campaign in London.  In what was our first explicit attempt to share and adapt the organizing model to new countries, we succeeded in winning a living wage for the workers at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster after they took their first ever strike action, with the support of MPs and other migrant rights groups like London Citizens.  Soon after, successful campaigns in the Canary Wharf and throughout the City of London followed. 

In 2006, with the support of SEIU, the Hamburg branch of the German trade union Verdi organized a successful campaign for security workers during the time the World Cup was hosted in Germany.  SEIU and UNI then went on to assist SATAWU – the main South African Transport Union – to use the organizing model to develop their campaign capacity and union density in key financial areas in Johannesburg. More recently, in 2007 the Justice for Janitors arrived to the Netherlands with the support of Change to Win.  In Holland, with the benefit of experienced campaigners from the US and Australia (where the LHMU had been implementing their own very successful “Clean Start” campaign), we were able to open source the model even more effectively.   Bondgenoten, the largest Dutch union, began experimenting and organizing janitors in a few key cities (Den Haag, Amsterdam and Utrecht) and were able to deliver an effective campaign that succeeded in winning their 10 euros/hour goal by campaigning against both public and private clients with the support of social movement allies.  In 2009 their first janitors’ strike at Schiphol airport created massive media exposure that gave their campaign big public recognition.

In 2010 the Janitors’ union launched the ‘Schoon Genoeg’ (Clean Enough) campaign which resulted in a massive 9 week long strike (the second longest strike in the history of the country).  The campaign had a very effective communications strategy lead by workers that generated massive public support. The cleaning workers – who were Turkish, Moroccan, Latin American, Asian as well as Dutch – organized major actions all over the country demanding benefits, Dutch classes and the right to organize without repression.  With strong support from social movements, political parties and the FNV (the Dutch labour federation) workers did banner drops, occupied train stations, gave awards to the worse building-owners and cleaning companies and spoke to the press about their situation so as to capture the Dutch national imaginary.  The primary aim of the campaign was to question the racism and economic discrimination faced by migrant workers in the Netherlands and to discuss how ‘integration’ could only happen with fairness, recognition and just jobs.  As a result of these campaigns and the very public fight that they created, public support for the union grew immensely.   The Dutch campaign was ultimately very successful in achieving its aims.  As a result, this victory helped turned the two main Dutch unions around to actively support and invest in renewed organising initiatives.  Currently, the Dutch unions have decided to keep organizing service and public workers to raise and defend labour standards in the private sector and to fight in a unified front against the upcoming public cuts.  These types of victories are important because they are able to give workers and their unions a renewed confidence in themselves as they reconsider their social and political role in the face of the contemporary crisis and its austerity attacks on the welfare state and labour standards.

The Justice for Janitors campaigns, that started in the US but soon spread to be as global as the capital it fights, is continuing to be used as a model for new types of labour conflict for migrants and precarious workers in their struggles for social and economic justice worldwide.  At the same time, the campaigns have challenged the unions to change and revitalize themselves so as to build the necessary power to win again. 

About the author

Valery Alzaga (Mexico City/Berlin) is a labour organizer and a migrant rights activist. Since 1999 she has organized with the Justice for Janitors Campaign throughout the US, UK and Holland. She has also worked as an organizing coordinator in different cities throughout Europe, Turkey and South Africa and is currently in advising various unions including IGMetall and Verdi (in Germany) organizing wind sector and outsourced airport service workers respectively. Her main interest is to develop new forms of bio-unionism and effective organizing and campaign strategies for newly emergent industries. She is currently working for the Change to Win - European Organizing Center