Justice for Janitors

From KeyWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Justice for janitors logo.jpg

Template:TOCnestleft Justice for Janitors is an SEIU organization that is comprised of janitors (caretakers and cleaners) across the US and Canada. Formed in 1985, Justice for Janitors includes more than 225,000 janitors in at least 29 cities in the United States and at least four cities in Canada.[1]

The Justice for Janitors campaigns are organized under a larger union: the Service Employees International Union. SEIU Property Manager Stephen Lerner was the primary organizer of the to the Justice for Janitors campaign as it organized members.[1]


The structure used by SEIU for its Justice for Janitors campaigns has been widely recognized for its innovativeness. As the labor movement was struggling to gain membership to unions, new models of organizing workers had to be developed. The SEIU strived to increase union membership and participation. The Justice for Janitors campaign utilizes a bottom-up model in which they organize workers based on geographical area rather than just their work site. It is also an innovative model in that it makes typically unnoticed workers visible and groups them together into larger collections in order to better fight the larger corporations. SEIU also provides trained organizers that are often sent to local unions in order to skillfully organize efforts. The Justice for Janitors campaigns often use disruptive tactics to get their point across.[2]

The campaigns of Justice for Janitors also use master contracts that are market-wide. One contract in a certain market will apply to all union janitors across that market. This allows union workers to fight for different rights while applying any accomplishments to all workers in that market.[3]

The Janitors for Justice campaign began with Stephen Lerner, a UFW organizer and later head of SEIU’s janitorial division in D.C. Lerner was placed in Denver for his first janitor’s organizing drive. Lerner acknowledges the influence of his work with UFW, and JfJ “was enormously influenced by the tactics…of the farmworkers movement.” Janitors for Justice employed UFW tactics, such as vivid imagery of the exploitation of workers, demonstrations, street theater, hunger strikes, vigils, blockades, clergy-labor alliance, and community organizing. JfJ even adopted the rallying cry of the UFW: “¡Sí se puede!” [4]

Los Angeles campaign

During the 1980s, janitors working for large real estate owners started to organize.

In 1983, janitors that were members of the SEIU joined together in the Justice for Janitors campaign using militant and direct action tactics.

The Justice for Janitors campaign came from Denver to LA in 1988. They worked in downtown to represent the union base and organize the non-union companies. The Justice for Janitors organizers focused on “double-breasted” companies, which were “firms with both union and nonunion operations under different names.” The first campaign was directed toward Century Cleaning.[5]

The official strike action of Janitors for Justice in Los Angeles began on April 3, 1990. The janitors marched and held demonstrations during the daytime for the 3 weeks. Many religious leaders, community leaders, and politicians joined the action of the janitors and supported their protests. The archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, held a special mass for the janitors. Also, mayor Richard Riordan joined the campaign by voicing his support for the janitors and their union. The janitors in Los Angeles stayed on strike until April 22. By this time, they had reached a contract that guaranteed a 22% raise over the next three years.

The Los Angeles strike was significant to the future of Justice for Janitors as it spurred a nationwide campaign involving over 100,000 SEIU janitors in 2000. [6] SEIU's Los Angeles Justice for Janitors campaign was portrayed in the motion picture Bread and Roses.

Houston campaign

Currently, many janitors in Houston, Texas are organizing through the Justice for Janitors campaigns. In July 2005, Houston janitors secured a check and neutrality agreement from the five largest cleaning contractors in Houston. In November 2005, four of the five contractors recognized SEIU as representing a majority of each contractor's workers, and in December, the fifth contractor did as well.[7]

In 2005 in Houston, the average janitor was earning an hourly salary of $5.25, compared to $20 in New York and $13.30 in Philadelphia and Chicago. The success of the Houston campaign was surprising due to the South’s history of resistance to unionization and hostility to labor. The success of service employees was decreasing in 2005, as the percentage of private-sector workers dropped to 7.9. Julius Getman, a labor law professor at the University of Texas, says the Justice for Janitors effort is "the largest unionization campaign in the South in years.” The AFL-CIO attempted a campaign in the 1980s known as the Houston Organizing Project, as the companies fought hard during a suffering economy to defeat the unionization effort.

The Houston campaign succeeded with the help of prominent allies in the community, a common tactic used by the SEIU. They received the support from the mayor of Houston, several congressmen, clergymen, such as Joseph Fiorenza, the Roman Catholic archbishop. The clergy-labor alliance is a strong tactic first used by the UFW and Cesar Chavez, and it has been adopted by numerous labor groups because it helps gain support from the community by legitimizing the effort as a spiritual quest for justice. For example, Archbishop Fiorenza said in an interview about the Houston campaign that it is "basic justice and fairness that the wages should be increased." He held a special mass for janitors and spoke at the union’s kick-off rally.[8]

On November 20, 2006, a few days after dozens of strikers and their supporters were arrested by Houston police while engaging in civil disobedience, a tentative agreement was reached between striking Houston janitors and employers. The proposed settlement included many concessions from employers, and SEIU was quick to declare victory.

Miami campaign

In October 2001, the University of Miami Faculty Senate began passing declarations to the University of Miami president, Donna Shalala. The declarations suggested that the university comply with the Miami-Dade County Living Wage Ordinance. At this time, there was little response to the resolutions provided.

In February 2005, SEIU janitors began organizing at both Miami Beach, Florida condominiums, employed by Continental Group, as well as janitors working for the University of Miami. SEIU also used the help of the South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice (SFIWJ). By the fall of 2005, they had also enlisted the help of students at the University of Miami. An organization called STAND, Students Toward a New Democracy, had members attend direct action training workshops in San Francisco, paid for by SEIU. STAND had managed to rally over 300 students for an email list and received 800 signatures from undergraduates on a petition demanding better worker pay.

On February 26, 2006, the janitors issued a strike that would last nine weeks. Many of the professors at the University of Miami signed a pledge to support the strike. The professors held classes off campus in order to avoid crossing the janitors’ picket lines.

On March 16, 2006, Shalala compensated and announced a wage raise of at least 25%. SEIU celebrated this gain, but they contained to prepare for further action at the University of Miami.

On March 28, the tactics finally began to receive significant media attention. Clergy and students began the blocking of traffic on U.S. Route 1. Because the activists were blocking this major highway, 17 of the activists were arrested. At the same time as the highway-blocking took place, students were infiltrating the University of Miami admissions office. Here, the students argued with Shalala for four hours until she finally agreed to attend a meeting to discuss the current situation.

The last stage of the campaign consisted of hunger strikes that led the University of Miami to feel a sense of crisis. Many of the strike's participants were hospitalized as a result of their extensive fasting.

Due to the escalating sense of crisis on the university’s campus, Shalala finally gave in. She proposed an even higher pay increase along with health benefits and a holiday break including paid personal days and paid holidays[9]


Criticism of the Justice for Janitors campaign is typically centered around non-democratic union processes and quick, trigger agreements. When local Service Employees International Union officials refused to participate in Justice for Janitor campaigns, their supervisors would remove them from office, and replace them with “trustees to run the locals, then running the trustees for the presidency.” At this time, the SEIU merged many smaller city or local offices, into regional or state wide offices, reaching multiple industries, making it difficult for rank and file individuals to compete for organizational and office positions with the more formal, staff run organizations. Those concerned over trigger agreements worried that the agreements were too lenient, giving too many concessions to the contractors. Criticism of the trigger agreements was quickly snuffed out after the SEIU successfully won a rolling strike for healthcare benefits in 2000. Furthermore, despite successes elsewhere, Justice for Janitors has struggled to create and maintain campaigns in the American South and in suburban areas where janitorial services have grown at rate beyond the organizing capacity of SEIU.[10]

External links