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(en) Poland, ozzip, Employee Initiative: The history of the "Justice for caretakers" campaign [machine translation]

Date Wed, 9 Jun 2021 07:34:54 +0300


In the 1990s, the US trade union SEIU (Service Employees International Union) achieved spectacular success in Los Angeles: it managed to unionize 80% of the city's cleaners and janitors, and won a collective agreement that significantly increased wages in the industry. This success was the result of many years of campaign under the slogan "Justice for Janitors" (JfJ). The operating model developed by SEIU on this occasion was so innovative that it is still considered an example of an effective union strategy for "difficult industries": gastronomy, construction, cleaning and trade. ---- The union response to subcontracting and precarization ---- In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the union density of cleaning staff across the United States decreased dramatically, and cleaning workers' wages nearly halved: in 1983, a cleaning lady in Los Angeles was earning $ 7 an hour; three years later, her hourly wage was $ 4.

These changes resulted from the restructuring of the cleaning services industry, closely related to the construction boom that was taking place at that time. New investments meant jobs in the service of buildings and premises, but property administrators were increasingly looking for savings. The pressure in this direction was exerted by new owners - financial institutions, which more and more often invested in real estate, treating them as a better source of profit than, for example, industry. And practically the only possibility to cut costs related to the maintenance of real estate was the salaries of the service. Hence the popularity of outsourcing cleaning services to subcontractors. Private companies, whose main advantage were low costs, began to compete for contracts for servicing new estates and buildings. These, in turn, were achieved by employing non-unionized workers and female workers,

The restructuring of the employment system was accompanied by a change in the "profile" of the typical cleaning worker: Black cleaners and janitors (employed in the public sector full-time) were increasingly being replaced by immigrants from Central and South America (illegal employment in the private sector, often part-time) . This shift in class composition, in turn, had its origins in the geopolitical situation: in the 1980s and 1990s, California became a mass migration destination from countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala, where right-wing military dictatorships (backed by the US) waged brutal civil wars against leftist guerrilla movements.

At first, trade unions were helpless in the face of these changes: they tried to establish company union structures with subsequent subcontractors, but building administrators coped with this by changing the company they commissioned cleaning services. A new strategy was urgently needed.

A new strategy: organizing

In 1988, the local Los Angeles branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was selected by the union's national authorities to test a new operating strategy. It was based on the following assumptions: (1) the goal was to quickly organize a sufficiently large number of employees from a given industry in a selected area to eliminate the practice of low-wage competition used by many subcontractors, (2) local structures were encouraged to focus on recruiting new members and members. , (3) local activities were supported by hired and paid professional "organizers", (4) employees and workers were organized on a territorial (city or county) level, not at the workplace level, (5) organizing was to be a continuous process involving as many people as possible .

The organizing strategy also assumed the use of new operating tools. Much more attention and time was devoted to contacts with employees: regular meetings, phone calls, and even "door-to-door" union agitation. A separate task was to identify addressees to whom the union should address its postulates: in practice, the level of wages was imposed not by cleaning companies, but by property owners. It was also necessary to find common postulates for a very "dispersed" workforce - people employed by dozens of separate companies. More attention was also paid to working with the public: efforts were made to publicize cases of exploitation in the media,

"Strategy is attack, attack, attack"

In practice, the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles was a series of actions targeting specific key companies in the cleaning industry. The first target was ABM (American Building Maintenance) and its subcontractors, which in 1989, through a series of pickets and protests, were forced to conclude a collective agreement for buildings located in the suburbs.

This success gave rise to an action against other companies: the shopping district Century City became the next target. After establishing contacts with cleaners employed by the Danish ISS corporation in the City, the organizers of SEIU conducted a series of pickets and direct actions: gala dinners and golf tournaments attended by owners of cleaning companies. The union recruited new members by creating local committees in districts with large groups of immigrants. The growth of the organization was accompanied by actions aimed at the image of companies and strategic lawsuits (including lawsuits for discrimination on the basis of union membership), which were to maximize the costs incurred by the employer refusing to sign the agreement.

The fight for a collective agreement for female and male ISS workers culminated in a general strike that began on May 29, 1990. In the third week of the strike, a SEIU demonstration was attacked and smashed by police. The brutal intervention of law enforcement services was widely reported by the media and contributed to an increase in public support for the campaign. This ultimately forced the ISS to sign a collective agreement: it guaranteed immediate increases in hourly wages to $ 5.20 and further increases in the next year to $ 5.50 and the coverage of ISS personnel by health insurance.

In the following years, SEIU twice more organized city-wide general strikes in Los Angeles (in 1995 and 2000) and campaigned more companies. Due to the success of the campaign in Los Angeles, SEIU still mobilizes cleaning staff in other cities under this slogan.

Lights and shadows of organizing

The balance sheet of the "Justice for janitors" campaign may seem unambiguously positive: SEIU managed to "regain" the cleaning services industry, raise the level of unionization, and stop the decline in wages. The "invented" in Los Angeles model of trade union activity is not without its drawbacks, however. Critics of strategies based on the JfJ model indicate that it is often the external, paid union staff that becomes the main "decision-making center" in it, and the needs, interests and activity of employees from the organized industry fall into the background. It is also problematic to focus union activities on the company's image and "black PR" campaigns - they often replace activities carried out by employees themselves at the workplace level. American union activist and journalism Jane McAlevey even writes,

Despite all these limitations, the model of operation developed by SEIU in cleaning services can be a starting point for us today to discuss the strategy of operating in precarious industries (where junk employment dominates, and employees and workers are scattered among many small or medium-sized employers).

Jakub Grzegorczyk

https://ozzip.pl/publicystyka/strategie-zwiazkowe/item/2787-historia-kampanii-sprawiedliwosc-dla-dozorcow
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