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Justice for Janitors:Scale of Organizing and Representing Workers

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Justice for Janitors: Scales of

Organizing and Representing Workers

Lydia Savage

Department of Geography-Anthropology, University of Southern Maine,

Gorham, Maine, USA;

lsavage@usm.maine.edu

Low levels of unionization in the United States have led to much attention being devoted recently

to the development of new models of organizing workers. In contrast to those which dominated

for most of the past half century, the models currently being embraced by many labor leaders are

typically grassroots and bottom-up in nature and call for a high level of participation by rank-andfile

workers. The Justice for Janitors (JfJ) campaign is an example of just such a model, one which

has been widely lauded for its innovativeness and success. However, whereas the campaign is

often thought of as representing a highly decentralized approach to organizing because of the

sensitivity it pays to local labor market conditions, the Service Employees’ International Union

which developed it has recently called for a concentration of power in a small number of national

union bodies. This has raised questions about the geographical scale at which power should rest

within the union movement and how to develop organizing strategies which are locally sensitive

yet also capable of challenging nationally and/or globally organized firms.

Introduction

It is now commonly accepted that the labor movement in the US is in

crisis, with only 8% of private sector workers and 12.9% of all workers

in unions. As a result, in recent years much attention has been given

to the development of new models of organizing workers. Typically,

the new models embraced by labor leaders—at least rhetorically—as

representing the labor movement’s salvation are ‘‘bottom-up’’ in nature

and call for a high level of participation by rank-and-file workers.

Within this discussion of how to revitalize the labor movement, one

model which has gained almost mythic status is that of the Justice for

Janitors (JfJ) campaign, which is presented as a successful example of

bottom-up organizing that has rendered an often-unnoticed group of

workers visible, has built and diversified union membership, and has

improved working conditions and pay for janitors. For many labor

activists, part of the JfJ model’s appeal is the fact that it has been

developed in the context of the expanding service sector rather than

the contracting manufacturing sector. However, although the JfJ has

been lionized for its success, its potential use as a template for other

campaigns has also raised a number of issues, especially concerning

where the locus of power should lie within the union movement. This

_ 2006 Editorial Board of Antipode.

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has been particularly so because the union which developed it—the

Service Employees’ International Union—has recently argued that

many of the unions which make up the American Federation of

Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) should

merge, thereby bringing about a concentration of power at the

national level so as to counter the power of nationally and globally

organized corporations, a strategy which seems at odds with the

locally sensitive organizing characteristic of the JfJ.

This paper, then, explores some of the debates around these questions

of the JfJ model and the geography of power in the US labor

movement. I begin with a discussion of some of the challenges faced

when organizing service sector workers. I then outline a number of

issues which relate to the deeply geographically-scaled nature of

unions and what this means for conflicts over organizing strategies

and the exercise of political power within unions. This is followed by

an examination of some of the scalar tensions which emerged in the

JfJ’s Los Angeles campaign, arguably the SEIU’s most successful.

Finally, I conclude with a discussion of how some of the same issues

which emerged in Los Angeles have also manifested themselves as the

SEIU has attempted to export its organizing model to the broader US

labor movement.

Challenges to Union Organizing in the New Economy

During the past decade, the AFL-CIO and a number of its constituent

unions have placed a high priority on organizing low-wage, service

sector workers in the belief that focusing on the service sector will not

only increase union membership but, given that this sector employs

primarily women and workers of color, will also diversify it. Leaders

have spoken of the move to broaden organized labor’s membership

base as a necessary condition for revitalizing labor unions and so of

creating a labor movement that can address a broad range of economic

and social concerns. Responses to this new emphasis on

organizing have varied widely: some labor activists have embraced

the opportunity to redesign strategies and organizing models and to

change the philosophy that underlies their organizing efforts, whereas

others have continued to use a more traditional model of organizing,

one which has its origins in the labor upheavals of the 1930s. Many

have adopted a hybrid approach, continuing to use the traditional

model of organizing yet adding a few different tactics that are seen as

representative of new organizing methods.

In order to understand the import of these new strategies and

models it is first necessary to outline those they are intended to

replace. In particular, it is vital to recognize that the organizing

model that has typically been used for the past six decades emerged

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from the manufacturing and mining sectors—labor’s mid-century

stronghold—and that such a model was perfected within the context

of the ‘‘business unionism’’ which developed in the early post-war

period as unions built large bureaucracies geared towards providing

members with services (Hecksher 1988). Understanding this history is

significant for two reasons. First, the spatialities of manufacturing and

mining workplaces are quite different from those of most service

sector workplaces, and this has implications for the model’s appropriateness

in these latter workplaces. Second, whereas the ‘‘community

unionism’’ of the 1930s saw rank-and-file members often deeply

engaged in their local union’s activities and decision-making, under

the business unionism model policy decisions are chiefly made at the

national level, thus rank-and-file participation is largely denied

(Moody 1988). Although business unionism has certainly been quite

successful in securing real improvements in workers’ standards of

living, the shift away from community unionism (a shift highlighted

by the 1950 contract between the United Auto Workers and General

Motors, a contract known informally as the ‘‘Treaty of Detroit’’)

meant that unions did trade a reliance on worker activism that was

deeply rooted in communities for a reliance on an organizational

structure that has often weakened the involvement and commitment

of the membership, a weakening whose consequences are now coming

home to roost (Faue 1991; Heckscher 1988, 2000; Moody 1988).

The ‘‘traditional’’ model of organizing developed in the midtwentieth

century, then, has several characteristics (Green and Tilly 1987).

Most specifically, it generally involves unions using paid organizers to

target ‘‘hot shops’’ and to appeal to workers by emphasizing ‘‘bread

and butter’’ issues (wages and benefits). Given their expense, organizing

campaigns are invariably run in a technical, top-down fashion,

with the emphasis being on quickly gaining the 51% of the vote

necessary to win a certification election. Finally, organizers typically

target large workplaces in industries where workers are thought to be

easily unionizable, since this will result in more members in exchange

for the union’s organizing efforts. However, with the faltering of this

model as the economy has shifted away from manufacturing, as the

workforce has become more diverse, and as the geography of workers

and workplaces has changed, pressures have grown for new models

which challenge the tactics and, often, the spatial assumptions of the

traditional model. These new models hold that, for the labor movement

to be truly revitalized, unions must rethink their philosophy of

organizing and building unions. This is frequently discussed as moving

from ‘‘business unionism’’ or ‘‘service unionism’’ to an ‘‘organizing

model of unionism’’, one in which organizing is continuous and high

levels of rank-and-file worker participation, activism, and leadership

are developed and maintained. It is, perhaps, no surprise that the

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low-wage service sector has been the source of many new tactics for

organizing, the result of the fact that, by and large, the model developed

in manufacturing and mining has not worked well for service

workers (Bronfenbrenner et al 1998; Milkman and Voss 2004).

Several differences between manufacturing and mining and service

sector workplaces, then, can be distinguished which have implications

for the transferability of models of organizing from one economic

sector to the other (Berman 1998; Gray 2004; Savage 1998).

Primarily, service workplaces are typically smaller and more decentralized

than are manufacturing/mining facilities. In addition, service

workers are often scattered throughout many types of workplaces—

for instance, janitorial staff may move through several buildings each

night, while health care workers frequently go from home to home.

As a consequence, service sector organizers must design tactics that

will allow them to reach both, say, 2000 clerical workers employed in a

single office park but also 20 janitors cleaning several different buildings

in an urban downtown (Savage 1998). In seeking to develop such

tactics, perhaps the most obvious challenge posed by a fragmented

service workplace is the identification and contacting of workers,

especially because the traditional methods of leafleting and approaching

workers at factory entrance gates during shift changes is a tactic

that is rarely successfully—unlike in manufacturing, service workplaces

such as office complexes, universities, retail settings, and

hospitals generally have multiple entrances and parking lots, service

workers such as clerical staff or retail workers have varied shifts and

often take their breaks according to the pace of the work, and many

workers often adopt a style of dress indistinguishable from that of

others in the workplace (in contrast to the coveralls of factory workers),

such that workers targeted by organizers become part of the

crowd of management personnel, customers, clients, students, or

patients when entering and leaving the workplace. Equally, the fact

that many service sector workers work at night in scattered worksites

and remain invisible to most people also makes mass leafleting

problematic.

In addition to such issues, how workplaces themselves are internally

laid out can dramatically influence the relationships between

workers and thus the possibilities for unionization. In particular,

service sector workers often work more closely with their bosses

than is the case in manufacturing or mining. For example, in her

analysis of the spatial strategies of resistance employed by the clerical

and technical workers union at Yale University, Lee Lucas Berman

(1998) shows how the university administration consciously separated

clerical and technical workers from each other physically, such that

even within small shared offices workers were isolated by being

placed in cubicles. Where isolation was not possible, workers were

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kept in open office spaces under full view of supervisors. As Berman

illustrates, the result of such control of the micro-geography of the

workplace was a social fragmentation of the workforce based upon its

spatial fragmentation. Certainly, similar kinds of control may be

attempted in the non-service sector. However, unlike in a small office

or retail space, in a mine or manufacturing facility it is usually the case

that workers have greater opportunity to find places beyond the gaze

of their supervisors, places where they might ‘‘talk union’’ or simply

goof off.

While the shift to service sector work has had an important

impact upon labor organizing, neoliberalism and sweeping economic

changes have also altered the employer-employee relationship in

ways not accounted for in the traditional model. Hence, no longer

do many service sector workers such as janitors work year round, full

time for an employer directly. Rather, it is now commonplace to work

as a temporary, part-time or contingent worker for an employer or a

sub-contractor. Furthermore, the complex network of contracting

relationships and the fact that corporations have become huge and

diversified entities, operating in many different sectors of the economy

with multiple types of employment relations, means it is now

more important than ever to have good research about patterns of

ownership and lines of corporate control. The dismantling of the

vertically integrated corporation which dominated the economy in

the 1950s or 1960s has, in other words, made it harder to determine

where, ultimately, corporate decision-making power resides and upon

whom workers must bring pressure to bear if they are to be successful.

Thus, if any organizing campaign and union representation of workers

is to be effective it must often spend significantly more time and

money engaging in corporate research than was the case in the past.

Despite the many challenges posed by a restructuring economy,

unions are crafting new models and strategies. The question in all

this, however, is ‘‘will workers respond?’’ If early responses are any

indication, the answer seems to be a resounding ‘‘yes’’. Thus, in their

extensive study of union election outcomes, Bronfenbrenner and

Juravich (1998) have shown that, of all factors, it is union tactics

that play the most important role in explaining union election results,

with unions’ choice of tactics having a much greater impact on organizing

outcomes than do anti-union efforts by employers or labor laws

perceived by unions as unfavorable. Specifically, Bronfenbrenner and

Juravich argue that the tactics that were most effective in winning

elections were those which encouraged high rates of worker participation

in the organizing campaign through housecalls, frequent

meetings (large and small), organizer attendance at worker social

functions, including workers in strategy design, and forming committees

to work on bargaining issues before there is even an election—that

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is to say, tactics which run counter to the model which has

dominated for the past half-century in which unions rely upon professional

organizers. They caution, however, that housecalls are not a

‘‘magic bullet’’ and that these tactics are only effective when used within

a campaign that emphasizes rank-and-file worker participation and

involves the wider community, so that issues faced by workers at one

worksite are not seen as isolated concerns but, rather, as concerns of

the larger community. For sure, some commentators have argued that

such ‘‘community unionism’’ is nothing new but is instead simply a long

overdue return to the roots of the labor movement (Cobble 1991; Wial

1993, 1994). Regardless of its historical origins, however, many unions

have increasingly embraced community unionism as a model of representing

workers at a time when the labor movement is grappling with

dwindling membership. More importantly, such unions appear to be

having some success (Banks 1991; Fine 2000; Johns and Vural 2000;

Johnston 1994; Savage 2004; Tufts 1998; Walsh 2000; Wills 2001).

These successes, however, have raised important questions concerning

matters of union structure—for instance, should the power to devise

strategies rest at the local level so that organizers can develop locally

sensitive campaigns, or does it need to be coordinated at a national

level so as to be able to match the organizational structure of employers

who are increasingly national and/or international in scope, and

what kinds of intra-union tensions do such questions spawn?

Institutional Scales and Worker Activism

While geographers have created a vibrant literature that examines the

relationship between the spatial scales at which unions operate and

how they affect or resist the economic and political policies articulated

by firms and/or the state (Berman 1998; Castree et al 2004; Gray

2004; Herod 1991, 1997, 1998, 2001a, 2001b; Holmes 2004; Sadler

2004; Savage 1998, 2004; Savage and Wills 2004; Tufts 1998, 2004;

Walsh 2000; Wills 1996, 1998a, 1998b; Wilton and Cranford 2002),

they have generally been less concerned to examine unions as institutions

which themselves have internal scales of power, authority, and

decision-making. Thus the fact that there exist national union bodies

(for historical reasons these are called ‘‘International unions’’ in the

US/Canadian context), central labor councils, and local branches of

International unions (‘‘Locals’’) which frequently have quite different

agendas points both to the inherently geographical nature of political

organization and to the fact that there are frequently significant

tensions between the various scales at which the labor movement

operates. Furthermore, as the labor movement experiments with

new forms of organizing, questions are emerging about what is the

appropriate scale—local, regional, national, international—for

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decision-making and the exercise of power. In what ways and at what

scales should the labor movement and its individual unions operate

to be effective defenders of workers’ interests yet also remain

responsive to such workers? At what scales do they need to structure

themselves in order to face the enormous challenges posed by an

ever-changing global economy? How big can a union structure grow

before worker activism and participation are no longer developed or

supported?

These questions go to the heart of trying to avoid the emergence of

a new bureaucracy which might stifle nascent efforts—such as those

of the JfJ campaign—designed to reinvigorate the labor movement by

breaking out of the dominant (and bureaucratic) business unionism

model. This is particularly important because much research on social

movements has argued that institutions which start out by challenging

orthodoxy invariably succumb to what the German sociologist Robert

Michels (2001/1915) labeled the ‘‘iron law of oligarchy’’—once any

social movement establishes a bureaucracy, there is a move away from

the very radicalism that led to the creation of the institution and

toward an interest to protect the status quo. However, Voss and

Sherman (2000) have argued that this argument does not appear to

fit recent moves to revitalize the US labor movement. Like many

researchers, they identify a shift over the past two decades in some

quarters from the pursuit of ‘‘business unionism’’ to the development

of ‘‘comprehensive campaigns’’ which are characterized by a high level

of activism by members and can eventually, though not inevitably,

lead to an organizing model of unionism. Thus, in their study of

Northern California unions, they found that, under certain circumstances,

local unions can break free of the bureaucratic conservatism

which has developed in the labor movement. Three factors appear to

be most significant in avoiding bureaucratic tendencies. First, they

found that unions that successfully challenged the iron law had

experienced a political crisis of some sort which had led to a change

of leadership through local elections or International union intervention.

Second, these new leaders had experience in other types or

forms of activism and the leaders took the decline of unionism as

an opportunity—indeed, a mandate—to change strategies and to

innovate. Finally, International—that is to say, national-level—unions

facilitated this new activist leadership by providing the resources and

support necessary for local leaders to succeed in implementing change.

The involvement of the International union, however, can have

significant impacts upon the degree of freedom which union Locals

may enjoy when it comes to developing innovative and locally sensitive

organizing strategies. Certainly, even under the business unionism

model most Locals in the US have long retained a measure of

autonomy regarding such matters as the number of officers they

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have and the time, place, and frequency of their meetings.

Furthermore, they generally have had responsibility for local collective

bargaining and grievance procedures, as well as for choosing in

which organizing campaigns they would engage and what tactics and

strategies they would use.1 But it is also important to remember that

these decisions are made within the context of a Local’s budget and

resources, and Locals have long argued that they need more money

and staff to run innovative organizing campaigns. Theoretically, since

they pay a percentage of their dues to the International union, the

International will return some of these monies in the form of personnel,

subsidies, and training, and the support of one’s International

union is often critical in any innovative organizing campaign, both in

terms of providing financial support but also in terms of granting

legitimacy to a new leadership and/or institutional change. However,

while their support is often needed to put the heft of the nationallevel

union behind a local union in any particular dispute, such

support usually comes at a price—national leaders frequently want

to exert some degree of control over a Local’s activities and are often

criticized for engaging in what is seen as undue and ‘‘top-down’’

interference in the day-to-day operations of local unions.

Consequently, much intra-union conflict revolves around struggles

between the national and local leaderships over who should exercise

ultimate power on particular issues, and many activists’ efforts to

secure the institutional spaces for engaging in innovative campaigns

have focused upon expanding local union and rank-and-file control

within the existing multiple scales of union decision-making concerning

the availability of funding and resources, together with localizing

the exercise of power within the overall union structure—the

Teamsters for a Democratic Union campaign, for instance, represents

one ongoing national effort to demand more rank-and-file participation

in the International’s day-to-day operations.

Though developing new models of organizing seems like a logical

goal for unions if they are to reinvigorate the labor movement, such

tensions between local unions, regional labor councils, International

unions, and even the broader AFL-CIO has meant that the issues of

what proportion of membership dues should be used to fund the

servicing of current members relative to the amount which should

be spent upon organizing new members, and at what level (local or

national) should that decision be made, have become significant

bones of contention. As a way to examine these issues, then, I now

turn to one of the most widely documented comprehensive union

organizing campaigns—the Justice for Janitors (JfJ) campaign (see

Clawson 2003; Cranford 1998, 2004; Erickson et al 2002; Fisk,

Mitchell and Erickson 2000; Howley 1990; Hurd and Rouse 1989;

Lerner 1996; Mines and Avina 1992, Rudy 2004; Savage 1998;

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Waldinger et al 1998; Wial 1993, 1994; Wilton and Cranford 2002).

Developed by the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) in

the mid-1980s, the JfJ campaign has been heralded for its success in a

time of challenge for the US labor movement. The campaign, however,

is not only important in its own right but it also has much

broader implications. Specifically, the SEIU national leadership’s

frustration with what it saw as the failure of many of the leaders of

the AFL-CIO’s constituent Internationals to organize new workers,

together with the apparent unwillingness of the Federation’s own

leadership to force the issue, led it to propose in December 2004 its

‘‘Unite to Win’’ plan which would have fundamentally changed the

way in which the broader labor movement operated by, amongst other

things, giving the AFL-CIO authority to require co-coordinated

bargaining by unions, to force mergers in sectors where several small

unions represent workers, and to funnel more money to unions which

engage in the kinds of innovative organizing represented by the JfJ

campaign.

The SEIU’s plan has, to say the least, been controversial—for

some, such a concentration of authority was the only strategy which

would allow unions to confront the power of corporations, whereas

for others it represented nothing but a naked powerplay by the SEIU

national leadership. In what follows, then, I explore some of the

tensions between these contradictory desires for the centralization

and decentralization of authority as they emerged in the JfJ’s Los

Angeles campaign. I then consider what these mean for the introduction

of new organizing models such as the JfJ within the broader labor

movement.

Justice for Janitors: A Comprehensive National

Campaign

Unions have long represented building service janitors. In the 1980s,

however, unions representing janitors (such as the SEIU) were faced

with declining memberships as the demographics of the workforce

changed and as the nature of the employee–employer relationship

was transformed by the growth of sub-contracting. While some locals

held onto their base memberships, many saw memberships plummet

and it was clear that if the SEIU continued to organize and represent

workers in the same way as it always had then the union would end up

losing the industry completely to non-union contractors. The recognition

of a need for change by the SEIU resulted in the JfJ campaign, a

campaign hailed as one of the most innovative and comprehensive

campaigns designed by an International union and one which has

been quite successful in gaining new union members. Significantly,

the SEIU has committed 30% of its resources to organizing and

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has taken the lead in national campaigns to organize, particularly,

janitors and healthcare workers, campaigns that are characterized

by disruptive tactics and militant public actions. Along with the

increased financial commitment to organizing, the International

has pushed local unions to organize new members and has, in

fact, allocated resources based upon local organizing efforts.

Often, SEIU organizers are dispatched from Washington, DC,

to assist local unions and/or to direct their efforts. The end result

is that the International has directed local unions to engage in

more worker organizing, has subsidized many of these efforts,

and has provided skilled staff and training to carry them out.

Combining an innovative approach to organizing workers by

geographical area rather than by worksite with well-publicized public

actions and a commitment to representing immigrants (even if

they are not legal immigrants), the JfJ campaign has sought to

remove wages from competition—long a central goal of union

organizers—by ensuring that all janitors in a defined area or

district are unionized, so that the pressure on sub-contractors to

underbid each other to win contracts with building owners is

removed.

One of the earliest and most successful JfJ campaigns involves

that of Local 399 in Los Angeles. Historically, the Local had

primarily represented health care workers who worked mainly

for Kaiser, a large Health Maintenance Organization (HMO).

However, in 1987 the International encouraged it to begin organizing

janitors instead. The result was a dramatic unionization of

janitors in the city: whereas only 10% of LA’s downtown commercial

building service janitors were unionized at the start of the

campaign, by 1995, 90% were. In addition to dramatically increasing

union coverage amongst janitors, the Los Angeles campaign

has been notable for the fact that many of the janitors are immigrants,

most of them are women, and almost all are Latina/o—all

groups which have traditionally been viewed by unions as difficult

to organize. Union organizers made deep connections in the

immigrant community and gathered strength for their actions by

involving community groups, immigrant rights groups, and the personal

networks that already existed among workers. The sensitivity paid

to the identities of workers and the comprehensive campaign

combined to result in the tremendous success of the JfJ campaign.

The campaign’s success, however, unleashed significant divisions

within Local 399, divisions which are important to understand if

the JfJ model is to be fully evaluated for its appropriateness for

more widespread application to organizing campaigns.

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Institutional Change and LA’s ‘‘Reformistas’’

As a result of JfJ’s success, by the mid-1990s Local 399 had grown to

represent 28,000 workers. However, for almost two decades, beginning

in the mid-1970s, the Local’s leadership had remained virtually

unchanged. The rapid growth in membership, though, unleashed

tensions within the union. Specifically, many of the long-time members

who were healthcare workers wanted the union’s focus to return

to healthcare and servicing members, instead of having the union

continue its efforts to emphasize the janitorial campaign.

Additionally, numerous rank-and-file members from all occupations

disliked the fact that many of the JfJ organizers came from outside

the Local. Others, particularly new members, complained that the

recent influx of Latinos meant that the leadership was not now

representative of its members. Within this context, in June 1995 a

21-member slate calling itself the Multiracial Alliance/‘‘Las

Reformistas’’ was elected to the Local’s executive board. Eleven percent

of the Local membership voted in the elections and the slate won

all 21 of the races contested on the 25-seat board. While the slate

captured board seats up to the executive vice-president, they nevertheless

faced opposition. The longtime president of Local 399, Jim

Zellers, soon squared off with the new, largely Latino leadership. The

new board passed a series of proposals, including the establishment of

a grievance committee and the firing of some union employees. It also

attempted to fire 12 of the Local’s 80 employees and to hire new staff,

though Zellers refused to comply, arguing that he alone had the right

to hire and fire union personnel and that the new board was trying to

usurp his authority.

Eventually, this internal dissension began to affect the Local’s dayto-

day running. Thus, whereas Zellers argued that things had run

smoothly until the new executive board had arrived, the new board

suggested that any conflict was the result of Zellers’s refusal to abide

by the outcome of the election and that, Solomon-like, if Zellers and

the ‘‘old guard’’ truly cared about the Local, they would relent. After

several weeks of such internal battles, in August 1995 the dissident

slate began a hunger strike. Zellers and his supporters claimed the

tactics of the dissidents were unacceptable, although ironically the

union had supported these tactics when they had been used against an

employer. Significantly, though, the hunger strike began at precisely

the same time that SEIU President John Sweeney was running his

own dissident campaign for the presidency of the AFL-CIO. As a way

of gaining some control over the situation, on 14 September 1995

Sweeney suspended the newly elected officers and placed Local 399 in

trusteeship. After suspending the Reformistas, he appointed Mike

Garcia to serve as Local 399 trustee, for up to 18 months.

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Significantly, Garcia himself was head of SEIU Local 1877, a union

headquartered more than 300 miles away which represented janitors

in Oakland, Sacramento, and Silicon Valley, and which was itself also

involved in the International’s JfJ campaign, having been created

when Locals 18 and 77 merged.

Sweeney’s rationale for establishing a trusteeship was that the

battle between the self-proclaimed dissidents and Local 399’s president

and his supporters was negatively affecting the union’s ability to

represent its members. In particular, the image of a union embroiled

in internal turmoil was seen as both weakening the bargaining

position of workers who were facing contract negotiations, and as

tarnishing the image of a campaign that relied heavily on public support

for its public and militant actions. This was exacerbated by the fact

that the public was kept abreast of the news via the LA press, which was

not kind to either the union or the dissident slate in its coverage of the

internecine quarrel—reporters, for instance, frequently trivialized the

issues by characterizing the Local as ‘‘crippled by a nasty spat between

the president and his supporters and rival dissidents’’ (del Olmo 1995)

and referring to the dissident slate as ‘‘rabble rousers’’ (Nazario 1995).

Equally, whereas some union members intimated that the lead

dissident, Cesar Sanchez, could not speak English well enough to

negotiate contracts and lacked experience to do the job, others—such

as hunger striker Martin Berrera—were quoted as saying that the old

guard ‘‘treat us like ignorant peasants’’ (Nazario 1995). Perhaps most

ominously, still others suggested that building owners were taking

advantage of the disarray to try to go non-union.

Upon accepting John Sweeney’s mandate, Garcia stepped in from

his Northern California base and set up a new leadership in Local

399, replacing Zellers. He quickly became involved in the furor,

making one of his few public statements about events in response to

a column in the LA Times by Associate Editor Frank del Olmo

(1995), who had asked ‘‘if the Latinos and women who were unionized

by the JfJ campaign are not yet ready to assume leadership, the

question for the union is, when will they be?’’ Significantly, del Olmo

had concluded his column with the opinion that innovative campaigns

are often painful for local unions but that this is a predictable outcome

of the ‘‘growth and change that is inevitable once formerly

all-male, all-Anglo institutions open their doors to large numbers of

minorities and women. After all, once you help raise the consciousness

of workers for the first time, it is naı¨ve to assume that they will

use their newfound skills only to criticize their employers’’—the

implication being that union leaders might also expect criticism for

their apparent high-handedness. In response, Garcia (1995) defended

his trusteeship by stating that ‘‘Local 399 had ceased to function

because of the dispute’’. Pointing out that the leaders of the Latino

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insurgents had been offered full-time jobs in the union and ‘‘an

opportunity to develop their skills and leadership abilities during

the rebuilding of the local union, after which self-governance and

democracy will be restored’’, Garcia argued that his appointment,

along with that of a team of deputy trustees, to oversee the Local

was, at the time, the only possible solution to the crisis.

Significantly, this was not the first time that Garcia had been

handpicked for an assignment by the International union. He had

become an organizer for the SEIU in 1980. In 1985, when the SEIU

designed the JfJ strategy, the International’s leadership had selected

him to be the point man for their efforts, largely because he had

already been working with janitors and was one of the few SEIU staff

members who spoke Spanish. Given this background, some Local

399 members felt he was more tied to the interests of both the

International and the JfJ campaign than the concerns of the Local’s

membership. For many, this fear was realized when, within his first

year as trustee, Garcia split Local 399 into two unions, removing the

janitors from Local 399 and putting them into his own, Local 1877.

As a result, Local 399’s Reformistas lost active and committed duespaying

members, and Local 1877 gained them. As a result, questions

concerning how active workers could be in leadership and daily

operations in a Local union headquartered 300 miles away from

their place of work immediately rose to the fore. In response,

Garcia argued that ‘‘every time [Local 399] tried to organize in

healthcare, the janitorial side fell down and every time you tried to

organize janitors, the healthcare side fell down’’.2 The answer to this

problem, Garcia suggested, was to have a single, statewide Local

focused on one industry. This would allow the Local to match the

scale of organization of the industry, an industry in which there is

increasing consolidation among building services and property services

corporations. Thus, for Garcia:

It makes sense as much as practically and as reasonably possible to

adjust [union] structures . . . It [the increased size of the Local]

creates a lot more power to leverage companies for the benefit of

workers and working families. Size gives you raw power and using

your leverage with [building] owners, clients, renters, leasers, and

sub-contractors makes a difference in organizing . . . It all comes

down to leverage in different areas at different levels. There’s

political leverage, community leverage, legal leverage, and industry

leverage. Aramark [an international company which provides food,

beverage, and cleaning services for a range of educational, healthcare,

and other businesses] is our Wal-Mart, Compass [a food

service company operating in more than ninety countries] is another

and they are entering our traditional areas of cleaning. Aramark and

Compass combined have as many workers as Wal-Mart. It takes a

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_ 2006 Editorial Board of Antipode.

discipline of focus, resources, and strategic thinking [to challenge

them].

In support of his argument, Garcia has contended that the combination

of grassroots activism from mobilized members and statewide

power has let Local 1877 move faster and be more powerful on recent

organizing efforts. For example, he suggests that the success of JfJ in

Los Angeles (including a strike in 2000) has given the union power

and momentum to organize janitors in locations long thought too

difficult to organize. Thus, drawing upon their LA triumphs, JfJ has

successfully organized janitors in Sacramento and Silicon Valley and

taken on corporations such as Hewlett-Packard. JfJ is also now in

suburban San Diego, where, as Garcia point outs, ‘‘2,000 Orange

County workers were organized in 2001 in a place most people

thought you could never organize, given the political landscape’’.

Indeed, according to Garcia, Orange County and San Diego ‘‘show

how things can move when you are large and powerful’’.

While it may or may not make sense to match corporations with

statewide Locals, balancing the needs and wants of members with

such union structures is not always easy. Hence, in the statewide

Local 1877, recent dissent has once again resulted in structural

change. In 2004, the Local’s San Francisco office decertified from

the SEIU and founded a new, independent union. However, this

event, at least according to Garcia, is a rarity and the union has

learned much from the decertification: whereas in Los Angeles the

merger between the two Locals was effective because the union

leadership spent a lot of time with the membership and had a timeline

and process in place, such that, in the end, even opposition forces

agreed to the merger, in San Francisco the union spent little time

educating the members about the benefits of the proposed merger

with Local 1877. As a result of the lessons learned from the San

Francisco decertification, Local 1877 has made changes to its structure,

and key offices throughout the statewide Local now have vicepresidents

elected by the union membership. For his part, though,

Garcia believes that union members care first about ‘‘strong unions

making a difference in incomes, healthcare, respect and dignity’’ and

only secondly about ‘‘politics and elected officials’’. Thus, for him,

‘‘the tricky part of [running] a large Local, a statewide Local—what I

realized in San Francisco—was I can’t be everywhere . . . There is no

way I can be deeply involved in a community and membership with 7–8

local offices’’. The goal of this reorganization, then, is to ensure that the

rank-and-file has some control over the Local’s agenda by directly

electing officials to key offices yet also to secure the power that comes

with a large structure. Indeed, Garcia and other SEIU leaders contend

that it is only by matching the 21st-century corporation in size

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and power and by creating and maintaining rank-and-file activism

that not only the SEIU but also the US labor movement can survive

and grow. As Garcia has put it: ‘‘where Andy [Stern, President of

SEIU] has taken our union and wants to take the labor movement is

where the global economy has gone’’. This goal of taking the labor

movement where global capitalism has gone has informed the JfJ

campaign but, perhaps more significantly, it is also the underlying

tenet of the SEIU’s ‘‘Unite to Win’’ plan and the resulting ‘‘Change to

Win’’ coalition, which split from the AFL-CIO in the summer of 2005.

JFJ as a Model for the Future of the US Labor

Movement?

Mirroring the ‘‘up-scaling’’ of its organizational structure in

California, so that a union ‘‘Local’’ was now to be defined as having

a statewide structure, the SEIU has recently proposed a significant

concentration of power within the AFL-CIO as being the only way to

challenge nationally and globally organized firms. As a result, all of

the struggles over scalar politics that are part of the SEIU’s experience

in California have now emerged in the debate over the future

direction of the entire US labor movement. Specifically, in response

to what it saw as the failure of the labor movement to address

declining membership, in 2004 the SEIU initiated its up-scaling

campaign, outlining its strategy in a widely distributed document

entitled ‘‘Unite to win: A 21st century plan to build new strength

for working people’’. Seeking to replicate the JfJ campaign throughout

multiple industries, SEIU leaders proposed that US unions

consolidate and then organize and represent workers along occupational

lines as a way to match the organizational structures of

21st-century employers. At the heart of this strategy was the belief

that being scattered among multiple small unions weakens workers

in two ways: first, there are many small unions that cannot, even with

good leadership, match the resources of employers; and second,

workers that share an industrial sector, craft or market suffer from

fragmented bargaining power.

As evidence, the report noted that 15 different unions represent

transportation and construction union members, 13 unions have significant

numbers of public employees, there are nine major unions in

manufacturing, while health care union members are divided amongst

more than 30 unions. Moreover, most of the forty AFL-CIO national

unions have fewer than 100,000 members, while 15 unions represent

10 of the 13 million members in the AFL-CIO. For the SEIU, then, a

successful strategy for the future would be one in which the

International unions of the AFL-CIO would ‘‘develop and implement

a plan . . . to (1) unite the strength of workers who do the same type of

Justice for Janitors 659

_ 2006 Editorial Board of Antipode.

work or are in the same industry, sector, or craft to take on their

employers, and (2) insure that workers are in national unions that

have the strength, resources, focus, and strategy to help nonunion

workers in that union’s primary area of strength to join and improve

workers’ pay, benefits, and working conditions’’. To achieve these

goals, the SEIU proposed a significant centralization of power with

the AFL-CIO,3 such that its

Executive Council should have the authority to recognize up to three

lead national unions that have the membership, resources, focus,

and strategy to win in a defined industry, craft, or employer, and

should require that lead unions produce a plan to win for workers in

their area of strength. In consultation with the affected workers, the

AFL-CIO should have the authority to require coordinated bargaining

and to merge or revoke union charters, transfer responsibilities

to unions for whom that industry or craft is their primary area of

strength, and prevent any merger that would further divide workers’

strength. The unions of the AFL-CIO should work together to raise

pay and benefit standards in each industry. Where the members of a

union have clearly established contract standards in an industry or

market or with a particular employer, no other union should be

permitted to sign contracts that undermine those standards.

The initial proposal by the SEIU was countered with plans

suggested by other unions and affiliated groups, such as the

Communications Workers of America, and the American

Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. In contrast

to the SEIU’s plan, such unions have argued that significant changes

must be made but unions should retain their autonomy and the

AFL-CIO should not be granted such sweeping power. Many union

activists, leaders, and rank-and-file members have also questioned the

proposal to change the structural nature of the US labor movement

without first changing its philosophical nature and breaking the hold

that the idea of business unionism still has over many union officials

and workers. Thus, in January 2005 the A. Philip Randolph Institute,

the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the Coalition of Black

Trade Unionists, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Labor

Council for Latin American Advancement, and Pride At Work issued

a ‘‘Unity Statement’’ pointing out that, while organizing is recognized

as the challenge:

those responsible for organizing decisions and for leading organizing

campaigns frequently do not include people of color and women.

Also, the tremendous challenge to organize people of color in the

South, in the Southwest, and in diverse urban areas lacks adequate

support and resources. The labor movement should not assume that

nonunion workers lack any organization. Indeed many workers of

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color and immigrant workers participate in their community through

civic, religious, and other forms of ‘‘identity-based’’ organizations

that are potential allies of the labor movement. Time and attention

to cultivate labor and community alliances to support organizing are

crucial. The constituency organizations are uniquely positioned to

build strong, enduring bridges of solidarity between unions and civil

rights, religious, women’s, immigrant, minority and Lesbian, Gay,

Bisexual and Transgender organizations.

Such tensions over the movement’s future finally erupted in July 2005,

when the SEIU, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters,

the Laborers’ International Union of North America, UNITE HERE,

the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the

United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, and the

United Farm Workers—unions representing over 5 million workers—

pulled out of the AFL-CIO to form a new federation, the ‘‘Change to

Win Coalition’’. Such a development has raised many questions about

the labor movement’s future path. How can workers build a labor

movement that is sensitive to the grassroots and encourages the

participation in decision-making of the rank-and-file union membership

yet which can also counter globally organized capital? In what

ways should the leadership structure of the labor movement and

individual unions change to reflect the new face of the laborforce?

If the labor movement scales up its strategies and structures without

simultaneously supporting local members and activists and their

needs, does the labor movement run the risk of recreating business

unionism on a larger scale? Significantly, many of these questions

revolve around the issue of geography, specifically at what spatial

scale should power reside, and how might unions develop strategies

which will allow them both the greatest flexibility and give them the

greatest power to confront the unevenly developed economic geography

of global capitalism. Although virtually all observers agree that

organizing and mobilizing workers is key to any effort to revitalize the

movement and that significant resources must be directed to such

efforts, the question remains how to achieve these goals and what

must be sacrificed to do so. Hence, whereas many see it as ironic that

a union hailed for a campaign such as the JfJ that was so innovative,

radical, and locally specific would launch a plan that consolidates

power in the hands of a few unions, others argue that the labor

movement must match organizationally its employers, who are

increasingly national and international in structure.

Conclusion

Decentralized workplaces that scatter workers across more and

more worksites are becoming increasingly common, forms of

Justice for Janitors 661

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employer–employee relations are becoming more varied, and the paid

workforce in the US is more diverse today than it has been in a century.

If it is to be successful in defending workers’ rights, then, the labor

movement needs to create models of organizing that can address all of

these issues. Moreover, research repeatedly points to the fact that organizing

efforts succeed more often when there is high rank-and-file

participation in the campaign. Yet, in order to motivate workers to

participate in union activities, organizers must understand the workplace,

the workers, and the employer. Thus, while campaign issues

may be similar across sectors and place (intensification of the labor

process, for instance), they take on particular forms in different

workplaces. Likewise, the types of actions which are appropriate will

vary according to the workers—for instance, the mass marches of redt-

shirted workers and supporters favored by LA janitors may not

appeal to janitors in other places. The key, therefore, seems to be

the ability to develop campaigns and structures which provide sufficient

flexibility to incorporate local specificity, yet which also provide

enough collective mass and centralized coordination as to allow

workers to stand up to their employers.

The labor movement, therefore, clearly faces many decisions about

organizing. One-on-one organizing is frequently very successful, but

is an expensive and lengthy process. Equally, while local autonomy

is often critical for organizing efforts, parent unions are usually

unwilling to provide funding without retaining some degree of control—

often, quite considerable—over the campaign. Creating a union or

campaign characterized by high levels of worker participation means

that paid union staff must relinquish some decision-making powers

and let the membership set goals and policy, but this is a difficult task

in a labor movement in which power is deeply entrenched.

Furthermore, the diversity of the workforce poses challenges as

union organizers and unions struggle with institutional racism and

sexism, the most obvious evidence of which is that the present makeup

of the US labor movement’s leadership and staff is a far cry

from reflecting the diversity of the service workforce. From elected

positions on executive boards to paid positions as organizers, white

men hold positions of power at higher rates than their membership in

particular unions.

Models of organizing such as the JfJ campaign emerging from the

service sector appear to point the way toward successfully increasing

both membership and participation. It is critical that unions organize

new workers and increase levels of worker participation and activism.

What remains to be seen, though, is at what scale decisions will be

made and how union culture and structures will change as a result of

changing organizing strategies and a changing membership. In building

the groundwork for a new labor movement, it is critical that the

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values of unions are shaped by workers in relation to their particular

workplace culture, the employer, and the identities of workers. It is

also critical that they carefully consider how to build the institutional

structures that allow for sufficient collective action to challenge

nationally and globally organized capital.

Acknowledgments

A version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the

Association of American Geographers in New York in March of

2001. I would like to thank Jane Wills for co-organizing the sessions

with me and Luis Aguiar and Andrew Herod for the opportunity to

be a part of this collection. I am grateful to Luis, Andy, Melissa

Gilbert and two anonymous reviewers for comments that greatly

strengthened the paper. Mike Garcia and Jonno Shaffer made time

to speak with me despite very busy schedules and I am very

appreciative.

Endnotes

1 Many unions have national ‘‘master’’ contracts which are negotiated by the

International union and cover such matters as wages and length of vacation time

but which allow Local unions to develop locally specific terms and conditions which

modify the master contract on certain matters (such as the specific times at which

workers may take breaks during a shift).

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations by Garcia are from interviews with the

author, conducted on 5, 7 and 9 March 2005.

3 This is a significant change, for the AFL-CIO as an institution has long had a

decentralized structure, with power residing with the individual member unions rather

than with the Federation itself. This contrasts with the model in countries such as

Germany, where the central labor federation—in the case of Germany, the Deutscher

Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB: German Confederation of Trade Unions)—has more

power to tell individual member unions what to do.

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Lydia Savage is an associate professor of geography and chair of

the Department of Geography-Anthropology at the University of

Southern Maine where she is also a member of the Women’s

Studies Council and a founding member of the Labor Studies

Minor Program. She earned her BA in geography from the

University of California, Berkeley and her MA and PhD in geography

from Clark University. Her current research examines the ways in

which labor unions are reshaping union strategies and transforming

institutional cultures in light of contemporary social, cultural and

economic change. A former member of the International

Association of Machinists, she is currently a member of the

Associated Faculties of the University of Maine System, MEA/NEA.

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