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The Lessons Unions Learned From the 'Justice for Janitors' Protests

The “Fight for 15” campaign to boost the minimum wage has taken many of its cues from those workers who waged a strike in the 1990s.
on May 15, 2014 in Chicago, United States.

on May 15, 2014 in Chicago, United States.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Updated on

Twenty-five years ago, striking janitors were clubbed and arrested by Los Angeles cops after locking arms and marching toward them in protest. This week, the Service Employees International Union is holding rallies commemorating that 1990 showdown, a key moment in a national campaign that swelled, to 133,000, the ranks of janitors covered by its union contracts. SEIU sees that effort, branded Justice for Janitors, as a precursor to today’s fast-food strikes, which similarly captured national attention in a way most activists can only dream of. (The J4J protests were the subject of the film Bread and Roses, starring Adrien Brody.) It’s an instructive comparison: The challenges SEIU faced organizing janitors in 1990 have only gotten more widespread. So have the tactics it took up to meet them.

On paper, winning a union is pretty simple: Under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, employees can petition the government to hold a unionization election, and if a majority votes for the union, the company is obligated to negotiate with it. In practice, unions contend, it’s a different story: Companies have ample opportunities to delay the process and intimidate employees without technically breaking the law; if they illegally fire workers for organizing, it’s hard to prove and the penalties are light; and even if the union wins the election, it often never wins a contract if the company remains dead-set against it.