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Justice for Janitors

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by Héctor Figueroa
President, 32BJ SEIU

On June 15th, 25 years ago, more than 400 commercial cleaners in Los Angeles joined forces in a peaceful rally for a fair contract and a union. Contractors had thrown out the union, cut pay to minimum wage and stripped janitors of all of their hard-earned benefits. As the workers locked arms to cross the street in L. A.’s Century City, they were beaten back by baton-wielding police officers. Thirty-eight marchers were wounded and arrested, and from that point on, June 15 has been memorialized as Justice for Janitors Day.

Justice for Janitors Day survived because the cleaners did not give up. Their treatment captured the public’s attention and focused it on the poor working conditions and the lack of respect for hard working janitors.  June 15, 1990 was the turning point in their campaign for one union for L.A.’s commercial cleaners. A few weeks later, a major contractor signed an agreement that included a 40% increase in wages and full health coverage. From that first contract, the movement spread throughout Los Angeles and in the years ahead to other markets around the country.

One of the cities influenced by June 15th was the nation’s capital, where I was working as an organizer for the SEIU in the mid-1990’s. I took part in the bridge takeover that brought widespread public attention to the plight of Washington DC’s janitors. It was a proud moment.

 

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As we move forward with our Commercial Contract Campaigns in 2015-16, it’s crucial that we remember our history. We must not forget the sacrifices made by our brothers and sisters whose courage helped build the Property Service Division of SEIU.

Justice for Janitors showed that low-wage service workers can win better wages, benefits, working conditions, even full-time work and a union. Our work is by no means over, as many janitors still need to win full-time work, comprehensive health insurance and other benefits. But as fast food workers, airport workers, retail and home health care workers today fight for $15 and a union, let’s remember what we have learned over twenty five years of Justice for Janitors: when we have clear goals, a clear strategy and unbreakable unity, we can win.

This year, we honored our proud history by taking to the streets in all our commercial districts during the week of June 15-19. In Boston, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Pittsburgh, Washington, Baltimore, Hartford, Stanford, White Plains, New York City and more, some 7,000 32BJ workers marched, rallied, and stood together to demonstrate our unity and commitment to raise wages for all America.