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.
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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.

J4J faced an additional challenge: The real decision-makers, SEIU concluded, weren’t the janitorial contractors that legally employed the workers, but the companies that owned the buildings and brought in those contractors. Call it the “Who’s the Boss” problem: A legal right to negotiate with the “employer” that signs your paycheck (say, a warehouse contractor, or a temp agency) isn’t worth as much if that company can easily get bossed around, or simply replaced, by the more powerful corporation that hired it (say, Walmart, or Microsoft). Making matters worse for organizers, U.S. law restricts unions’ ability to mount so-called “secondary picketing” against companies that aren’t the employers of the workers they’re organizing. “The majority of our work in Justice for Janitors was trying to figure out how to negotiate around the secondary boycott laws,” campaign architect Stephen Lerner said in 2012.

Rather than trying to unionize janitorial contractors by petitioning the government for elections, SEIU pressured commercial property owners around the country with waves of aggressive activism, like disruptive blockades of major bridges, and unwelcome attention, like a push to curtail developers’ tax breaks. (Having existing collective bargaining agreements in the industry also amplified that leverage.) Besieged building owners eventually decided it was in their best interest to back, rather than block, union agreements among their contractors, and contractors agreed to a less fraught process for unionization.

Such “comprehensive campaigns”—marshaling a mix of political, legal, consumer, community, media, and workplace pressure to coerce a company into forswearing union-busting—are arguably as old as unions themselves. But as economic, legal, and managerial changes have made government-supervised union elections—as well as production-halting, indefinite strikes—that much more difficult to pull off, comprehensive campaigns have moved to center stage.

Those tactics only go so far. During janitors’ contract negotiations in Houston in 2012, SEIU tried to build on Justice For Janitors’ past success, marrying tactics like a “Call Me, Jamie” web video targeting JPMorgan Chase, whose buildings its members clean, with strikes by some employees and civil disobedience by activists supporting them. But SEIU went into that fight with only around 40 percent of the Houston janitors covered by its contract signed up as members of the union, which helps explain why it came out of it having only won annual raises of 25 cents an hour.

With its rallies this week, SEIU is highlighting its ongoing janitor efforts, but also the “Fight For 15” it’s funded, fomented, and spearheaded in fast food and elsewhere. Like J4J, that campaign is using comprehensive tactics—escalating worker walkouts since 2012, a website mocking McDonald’s budget advice for employees, a petition urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate franchising abuses—to squeeze fast-food corporations until they foster unionization of their franchisees. And like J4J, rather than training all their fire on a single company in hopes of making an example of it, the campaign is targeting all the main industry players at once, maximizing public attention and hoping at least one of the giants will buckle, and the others will follow.

That hasn’t happened yet. Fast-food strikes have mobilized workers in hundreds of cities and helped spur several cities to approve big minimum wage hikes. But so far, none of the big fast-food corporations has shown an interest in making a deal with SEIU. If they ever do, one big question —like elsewhere—will be how much the union is willing to give up.

Would SEIU agree to restrict which parts of the country can unionize, or pre-commit to a cap on increased labor costs? “It could be something like that,” SEIU’s Scott Courtney, an architect of the fast-food fight, said in 2013. New York City KFC worker Naquasia LeGrand, one of the effort’s most prominent activists, who has since moved to working at McDonald's in North Carolina, had a different take: “Honestly, compromise is not in my book,” she said. “I’m a winner, you know. So I would want to win our $15 and a union.” One test of what compromise SEIU can accept could come next month when New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, whom state law empowers to unilaterally raise an industry’s minimum wage, receives a recommendation from a hand-picked panel on how much to hike fast-food pay. The three members of that panel are a mayor, a business leader, and the secretary-treasurer of SEIU.

 J4J architect Stephen Lerner, meanwhile, left SEIU a couple years before the first fast-food strike. He’s now working with unions and community groups in the U.S. and abroad on a comprehensive campaign to unionize a different set of low-wage, overwhelmingly non-union workers: frontline employees at America’s big banks. 

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Naquasia LeGrand's name was misspelled in the ninth paragraph.

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