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May 2000, Volume 7, Number 5

Labor: Janitors, Sanctions

Several thousand of the 8,500 janitors represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 1877 went on strike against 18 cleaning companies in April 2000 in Los Angeles County in support of their demand for a $1 an hour raise in a new three-year contract. Most of the janitors earned $6.50 to $8 an hour, and companies offered a $0.50 an hour raise. After three weeks, the janitorial companies offered hourly increases of $0.70, 0.60, and 0.60 an hour to downtown janitors, and of $0.20, 0.60, and 0.60 an hour for janitors in the suburbs, plus a one-time $500 return-to-work bonus.

On April 23, it was announced that an agreement had been reached, ending the three-week old strike, with 25 percent wage increases over the next three years. The union declared victory; observers noted that many politicians endorsed the largely immigrant work force's demand for higher wages.

According to the SEIU, average janitors' wages in Los Angeles declined from the equivalent of $13 an hour in the early 1980s, when most janitors were US-born Blacks employed directly by building owners, to $6.80 to $7.80 an hour in 2000, when most are immigrants and employed by cleaning contractors. The SEIU says that profitable janitorial firms can raise wages. American Building Maintenance, one of the largest janitorial services companies with more than 39,000 employees, earned $50 million in profits on $933 million in revenues in 1999; its president received about $1.1 million in salary and bonuses.

The SEIU began to organize janitors in the 1980s in Pittsburgh and Denver under the "Justice for Janitors" campaign, with tactics borrowed from the civil-rights and farm-worker movements. The campaign's logo is a raised fist clutching a broom. SEIU contracts covering 100,000 janitors expire in the spring and summer 2000; janitors went on strike in downtown San Diego and suburban Chicago in April 2000, and strikes are possible soon in the Silicon Valley, Cleveland, Seattle and Milwaukee.

In Silicon Valley, the combination of wages depressed by immigration and high housing prices has put a painful squeeze on janitors and other unskilled workers, prompting the director of the AFL-CIO's Silicon Valley office to say that, "Unfortunately, the New Economy is looking a lot like an hourglass with a lot of high-paid, high-tech jobs at the high end and an enormous proliferation of low-wage service jobs at the bottom." The SEIU is requesting raises from an average of $8 an hour to $12.50 an hour.

The AFL-CIO has begun to hold meetings around the US in support of its call for another legalization for unauthorized foreigners in the US and a halt to the enforcement of employer sanctions. Linda Chavez-Thompson, AFL-CIO executive vice president said: "We want to bring a better understanding within the labor movement [about the importance of organizing immigrants] because there has been such strong opposition to immigrants" in the past among union leaders. The AFL-CIO plans to hold meetings in Atlanta (April 29), Chicago (May 6), and Los Angeles (June 10).

In a Pennsylvania case, a court ruled that an unauthorized worker was eligible for workers' compensation benefits. The worker, injured at a construction site, applied for benefits; his employer asked that no benefits be paid, since the worker was not authorized to work. The Pennsylvania court said that state law does not prohibit unauthorized workers from receiving workers' compensation benefits, and said that, if unauthorized workers were not eligible, employers would have an incentive to hire them (The Reinforced Earth Company v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board).

Sanctions. In October 1999, just before negotiations for a first collective bargaining agreement were to begin, the general manager of the Holiday Inn Express in downtown Minneapolis called the INS to check on the legal status of 16 workers: eight housekeepers were apprehended. The union protested that the Holiday Inn was using the INS to discourage collective bargaining. In January 2000, the Holiday Inn Express made a $72,000 settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of nine workers, awarding each $1,000 in compensatory damages and $7,000 in back pay; this was the first settlement under the new EEOC policy that extends protection against discrimination to all workers in the US, including unauthorized workers.

The AFL-CIO cited this Minneapolis case when it decided in February 2000 to end its support for employer sanctions.

The workers sought to remain in the US, even though courts have ruled that regardless of how the INS learns about illegal alien workers, they can be deported. The INS in April 2000 agreed that seven of the hotel workers could remain in the US for two years, and work legally beginning July 1, 2000. The INS acknowledged that there was no legal precedent for giving "deferred action" to the seven workers, but the INS decided to allow them to stay temporarily for their cooperation with the federal government in its discrimination case against their employer, the Holiday Inn Express in Minneapolis.

Training. The federal government has dozens of programs that aim to help unemployed and disadvantaged workers to receive the training and skills they need to obtain employment. One of the most expensive programs is Job Corps, which cost $1.3 billion a year or $20,000 for the 60,000 participants. The program gives youth 16 to 24 years old a second chance-- two-thirds of all participants had never held a full-time job, and one-third of the males had been arrested at least once before joining the program.

Job Corps operates 116 residential centers around the US, and 90 percent of participants are housed in one of these centers. According to evaluations, those who participated in Job Corps earned more and were more likely to get a high school diploma or its equivalent than similar youth not enrolled in Job Corps.

Saipan. Private US lawyers filed suit against six more US garment retailers in March 2000, accusing Levi Strauss & Co., Calvin Klein Inc., Brooks Brothers Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch Co., The Talbots Inc. and Woolrich Inc of violating US labor laws in a conspiracy with foreign-owned subcontractors in Saipan, part of the U.S. territory of the Northern Marianas about 3,700 miles southwest of Hawaii. By the end of March 2000, several US clothing retailers agreed to settle the claims for $8 million, and to hire an independent monitor to monitor conditions in Saipan plants. The suit against garment manufacturers, many of whom are Korean or Chinese, was originally filed in January 1999 and is set for trial in February 2001.

Steven Greenhouse, "Janitors Struggle at the Edges of Silicon Valley's Success," New York Times, April 18, 2000.