Union's support

Published: Saturday, January 24, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 10:07 p.m.
PITTSBURGH -- The labor protest outside a downtown building had all the markings of a traditional picket line, yet when police arrived to make arrests, they clapped the handcuffs on clergy members and not workers.
The picketing and the arrests on Thursday had the indelible stamp of the Justice for Janitors, a campaign within the Service Employees International Union that began in Pittsburgh during a bitter janitors' strike in 1985.
The campaign has become one of the most active labor movements today, labor experts say, because of its success in linking the plight of those doing some of the country's dirtiest work with a wider social malaise. Churches and social organizations have backed the union in its plight.
Labor experts also say Justice for Janitors has taken a page from the corporate playbook - attacking foes simultaneously through organized media blitzes, litigation and pressure on a company's customers and suppliers.
It has been a tremendous success.
Union membership in the SEIU's building services division, the one that represents janitors, has jumped by 40 percent since the Pittsburgh strike in 1985, and by 44,000 members since 1999, said Stephen Lerner, one of the architects of the movement and director of the division.
At the outset of the 1985 strike, the union was hemorrhaging membership due to a "perfect storm" in the building industry, Lerner said.
"There was an overbuilding crisis and a lot of cost-cutting. Building owners became huge corporations and cleaning companies became corporations," he said. "We almost went into extinction."
Made up of a large number of immigrant or minority workers with few skills who were largely isolated from one another, the campaign built "corridors" of workers who could bargain effectively.
The division is now 210,000 strong, according to the SEIU, and wields considerable leverage.
"This was a campaign against some of the highest concentrations of wealth in real estate," Lerner said. "It wasn't a union fight, it was a social movement and that is why you see this broad use of civil disobedience and community organization."
The campaign has been successful in allying itself with community groups and churches, as was evident Thursday as four clergy members of varying denominations were led away in handcuffs. They were charged with trespassing and later released.
The clergy were protesting the firing of nine janitors during the holidays at Centre City Tower, shortly after a new contract was signed that meant improved health care coverage for janitors.
On Tuesday, a federal lawsuit was filed by the SEIU against Independent Management Co., which operates the building, claiming it had illegally interfered with a labor contract and violated coverage mandates under ERISA, the law that governs employee health benefits.
The company did not return calls Thursday.
Tactics used by Justice for Janitors are reminiscent of class-oriented struggles during the 1930s in the steel and auto industry, but this time, it's being applied to the service industry, said Marick Masters, a professor with the Katz Business School at the University of Pittsburgh.
"This campaign is the leading edge of these provocative tactics, just like a corporate campaign," Masters said.
"There are multiple fronts . . . suppliers, customers, petitioning of government agencies, litigation and mobilization on the civil front. But this isn't arranged overnight. They know how to pull all the strings and they are politically savvy."
The emphasis has been on health care for workers and the campaign has been building momentum, even as other labor segments are seeing cutbacks in benefits.
In the mid-1980s, 23 of the 25 cities that had majority union janitors took concessions and accepted collective bargaining, Lerner said. In 2003, there were 28 cities with majority union representation and there were no concessions, Lerner said.
Justice for Janitors secured coverage for employees recently in San Francisco, Denver, Cleveland and Silicon Valley.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top