Janitors may soon strike in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Thousands of janitors in Los Angeles could vote to exchange buckets and brooms for union banners this week, and union officials say expiring contracts in other cities mean a work stoppage could expand.

The contract for the 8,500 janitors who empty trash and clean toilets at commercial properties in downtown, Century City and elsewhere in Los Angeles County expired Friday night. Officials from both sides say they are so far apart further negotiations would be pointless.

A strike vote is planned for Monday, and in a sequel to the high-profile ''Justice for Janitors'' demonstrations of a decade ago, it will be followed by all-night picketing, marches and chants, and civil disobedience and planned arrests.

''Everything we can think of we're going to throw at them,'' said Mike Garcia, president of the Service Employees International Union, Local 1877.

Contracts covering some 100,000 janitors nationwide will expire in coming months. Those contracts cover union-cleaned buildings in New York, Chicago, Silicon Valley, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

''This is a nationwide movement of the poorest and most exploited workers,'' said Stephen Lerner, the union's building services director. ''We see this as a time when janitors are going to stand up around the country and say, 'This incredible economic prosperity is not trickling down.' ''

Negotiations with 18 cleaning contractors broke down when union leaders asked for $1 an hour raises for the next three years - the average hourly wage is now $6.90. Contractors offered a one-year wage freeze for a majority of janitors followed by 40-cent-per-hour increases over the next two years.

Dick Davis, the bargaining coordinator for the contractors, said Saturday they initially offered a five-year wage freeze and made significant concessions from there. The union, he said, was not similarly flexible.

''To me, they just haven't engaged in fair bargaining,'' he said.

Davis said the contractors have hired temporary workers and taken other measures to ensure most office buildings will see virtually no change to their janitorial services.

A spokeswoman for one of the properties that would be affected in downtown Los Angeles, the Figueroa Courtyard, said Saturday she had been instructed by legal counsel not to comment on the impending strike.

Service Employees International, which claims 70 to 80 percent membership in many major cities, said janitors have yet to share in America's economic boom and many still live in poverty.

Justice for Janitors, with its logo of an upraised fist clenching a broom and its tactics borrowed from the civil rights and farm workers movements, first organized in the mid-1980s in Pittsburgh and Denver. The movement gained nationwide prominence with the events of a decade ago in Los Angeles.

Organizers started Justice for Janitors because the unions representing janitors in the 1960s fell apart during the 1970s, victim in part to a shift from janitors working directly for building managers, to janitors working for contractors who bid fiercely against one another to work for building managers, Lerner said.

The union says it must strategize nationally because building managers and contractors are increasingly national firms. Union locals nationwide have collaborated to plan events, including a protest April 12 in New York.

''What we're doing is we're organizing ourselves to mirror how they're organized,'' Lerner said. ''The people who oppose us are incredibly wealthy and powerful. But what we have is janitors who have a thirst for justice.''


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