By Taking to Streets, Janitors Put Face on Growing Labor Movement Class Struggle

The tremendous organizational flair and wide political support developed for the janitors' strike could well represent a major watershed in the future of Los Angeles. By commanding the streets, and implicitly threatening the economic future of major property owners, the strikers have won a major victory that may suggest a dominant trend in L.A. politics for much of the decade.

Part of the power of the strike lies in its compelling nature. The request for another dollar an hour by impoverished workers even Mayor Riordan has said it's an inadequate raise can barely be contested in the court of opinion. Only the residual elements of right-wing Republicanism in Los Angeles County could even consider opposing their demands.

"They are getting a clean win the man on the street is with them," says one key labor union advisor. "They might as well take advantage."

Yet at the same time, the success of the janitors illustrates something that, to a large extent, has been swept under the rug in Los Angeles for many years.

Non-union roots.

For much of the late 20th century this region has been obsessed with issues of race predominately black and white that have twice convulsed the city in spasmodic violence.

In contrast, the issue of class has been less contentious here than in many other cities, such as New York or Chicago, that experienced considerable labor strife during the first decades of the century. It's important to remember that Los Angeles, until mid-century, remained pretty much a non-union town, particularly at the lower ends of the pay spectrum.

Even as labor gained power in Los Angeles during the Bradley era, many of the unions were largely moderate and made up of middle-class employees, such as film technicians, aerospace workers, construction workers and teachers. Although occasionally contentious in their conflicts with employers, these workers largely reflected the prevailing political and cultural norms of Los Angeles.

Today, organized labor has turned its attention to an entirely different class of workers the low-end service employees who, for the most part, have been left behind in the current economic boom. These include county home care workers, those employed in hotels and restaurants, and janitors. They do difficult jobs that few middle-class Angelenos could imagine doing.

Also critical, these workers are, for the overwhelming part, recent immigrants to this country. Ironically, in many cases, they initially helped break existing unions such as those representing predominately African American janitors in the 1970s and 1980s by offering to work for low wages with little benefits. Yet by the late 1990s, many of these workers were demanding the very same rights that had once been in place through collective bargaining.

Troubles ahead

The rise of these newly organized workers raises both opportunities and potential problems. To be sure, the creation of a more stable working-class population with at least minimal health care benefits could help offset the public's subsidy of uninsured workers. And if more dollars are put into the pockets of such workers, it could provide something of a boost for immigrant shopping districts in places like East Los Angeles, Huntington Park and Panorama City.

Yet at the same time there are political, ethnic and potential economic problems that could develop. On the political side, the increasing clout of organized labor particularly government unions could blunt any hope for reform of Los Angeles' notoriously failed public institutions. The prominent presence of the head of the United Teachers of Los Angeles at the janitors' rally suggests that the janitors are now linked with some of the very forces responsible for the terrible education being meted out to their children.

The growing power of the janitors' union, Service Employees International Union, should also raise particular concerns. This is a union that supported Tom Hayden for mayor and could nudge Los Angeles politics even further toward the anti-business left in the coming years.

On the ethnic side, the increasingly Latino nature of the union movement (rough estimates suggest Latinos make up as much as a third of the total L.A. union membership, and that percentage is likely to grow) could accelerate the development of an ethnic political machine, tying Latino racial pride with a powerful economic institution. If not handled delicately by Latino political leaders, this mixture of class and race ultimately could be seen as threatening by other L.A. ethnic groups who may feel left outside the new power mix.

Growth of union movement

Finally, there is an economic side to this equation. Ultimately, the ability of unions to extract concessions from employers at the growing service end of the economy will encourage organization in other growth sectors, including information services. Union insiders are also aware that dependence on a new membership of low-wage workers can only be balanced long-term by the recruitment of more affluent and skilled people, such as those now employed in the almost totally unorganized Internet and digital studio sectors.

These sectors could be ripe for unionization, particularly if the digital economy continues to be hammered from Wall Street. Diminishing prospects of stock options may focus digital workers on other more mundane labor issues, such as job security and health benefits.

In this way, Los Angeles could soon become the battleground not only for recovering the rights won in the New Deal the essence of the janitors' strike but for organized labor's attempts to seize the most critical parts of the 21st century economy. This effort could prove even more costly and contentious to the local economy than the dispute over the janitors.

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