A small history of the janitors’ struggle
The most conscious janitors of Northern California remember the agreement of the Master Contract that the Local 1877 leaders agreed with the bosses of the custodial companies in 2003 as a despicable betrayal and a shameless mockery against all janitors.
The complaints most heard then by these workers were:
1. The leaders of the union had negotiated the contract without consulting the rank-and-file workers and taking into consideration their opinion.
2. It was a humiliation for the janitors to receive salary increases of $0.05 cent each year for the first four years and an increase of $0.15 cents on the fifth.
3. The leaders increased the union dues a dollar every year progressively for five years for the time of the contract. The argument that they used to convince the workers was that the salaries had to be sacrificed to maintain the same medical plan. The majority of workers accepted the agreement that the leaders had negotiated behind their backs without saying anything.
But with time, when the workers began to feel the rigor of practically staying with frozen salaries & with increases of union dues every year, the rage grew and it unleashed a non-conformism in certain sectors of the workers that led them to abandon their trade union activism, while on the other hand they preferred to seek good relations with the supervisors and the bosses. This left the workers completely vulnerable to the competition between themselves and the attack by the companies. As a result, many valuable leaders of the union were marginalized from the organization as a result of the leadership’s betrayal.
Nevertheless, another sector of activists in Local 1877, instead of allowing itself to be taken away by the desperation, opted to organize themselves independently and began to lift the flags of democracy and of mobilization as a response to the conciliatory practices of the union leaders.
In the face of the master contract negotiations in 2008, this sector of fighters that arose to confront the bitter experience of the 2003 negotiations gradually began taking positions in the Executive Board and the negotiating committee. In addition, they were willing to confront the leaders’ maneuvers that sought to ignore the workers and facilitate the imposition of the bosses’ anti-workers politics.
The 2008 Strike and the Opposition strengthens
In 2008, the leaders of Local 1877 not only felt the hot iron of the members’ nonconformity but also they began to notice that an opposition was taking an organized form in the interior of the organization. Besides the corruption, the leadership’s dependency on the Democratic Party and the ardent desire to expand their privileges at the expense of the members, the leadership took union finances to the red which damaged their reputation amongst the workers much more.
Already in 2004, the janitors of the Local 1877 in San Francisco rebelled and distanced themselves from the leadership of Mike Garcia, president of Local 1877. This is because he had decertified and set a precedent for the rest of the membership. But after this crisis, another rebellion took place in the union. This time members organized themselves to protest against the disproportionate increase in union dues. The workers’ pressure on the leadership of the union was so strong that they were obliged to revise the system of dues payment. Although the workers removed the previous dues quota system, the leaders maneuvered and imposed a percentage system under another figure, thus maintaining union dues above $65.00 dollars per month. The union dues paid by these janitors is double the amount of money that workers in other unions pay, even in cases where they earn better wages and benefits than the janitors.
Before the negotiations of the Main Contract in 2008, this was the atmosphere in Local SEIU 1877. The workers saw these negotiations as the opportunity to take revenge against the bosses and against the leadership of the union that in 2003 had betrayed them. The struggle presented good omens for the workers who not only were ready to go out to fight openly against the companies, but also included a layer of fighters that were ready to put themselves at the forefront in the case of a strike.
The leaders of the Union were conscious of the mood that surrounded the janitors at that time. Therefore they decided to put themselves at the head of it in order to not defeat the companies but instead to propose to them a new treason against the janitors and in favor of the bosses’ interest.
This is how the condition for the great janitors’ strike of 2008 occurred. Thousands of workers came out to the streets to defend themselves. The strike lasted close to fifteen days, at the end of which the union leaders started doing work to sabotage it.
Within 15 days of the strike, the janitors had already defeated the bosses’ posturing and were willing to continue the strike to extend its victory even more. They had managed to maintain a good medical plan for the workers, increases wages up to a dollar per year, and other benefits like vacations, sick days, etc. At this point, the leaders of the union attempted to convince the striking janitors to stop the strike and accept what they had already won up to this point. Nevertheless, the first attempt of the union leadership, with Mike García at its head, to end the strike failed when a massive assembly of strikers decided to continue. It was then that the leaders chose to call assemblies separated by city. This way, by using its entire apparatus, they managed to impose the end of the strike and again ruined the opportunity of the workers, who were trying to strengthen their struggle, to put more grievances to the companies.
The union leadership’s maneuvers to end the strike were harshly rejected by the sector of opposition that had been at the head of the pickets and demonstrations. After the end of the strike the union was divided. The opposition had put itself forward as a political alternative to the bureaucratic leadership and this polarization was expressed in the elections of union officials at the end of 2009. The lack of experience of the opposition, the attacks of employers against workers who had participated in the strike, & the anti-immigrant attacks by Obama and companies using E-Verify almost left the opposition extinct on the eve of new negotiations for the contract.
Disguised as Occupy, the leaders of USWW (Local 1877) strike a new betrayal on the janitors
At the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012, the frustration of some sectors of workers and students against Obama’s administration and its openly imperialist and capitalist policies, gave birth to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the middle of the current economic crisis. It was a movement that in its beginning openly reflected its anti-capitalist sentiment by denouncing the big imperialist corporations and the Democratic and Republican government as the main cause for the unemployment, the loss of the houses of millions of workers, the bloody wars of invasion abroad and of the climate change that is spoiling the health of the planet.
After huge days of mobilization and protests at the national level, they were answered by the government with strong police repression while the bureaucracy, little by little, was penetrating the movement to demobilize it. This was what USWW president Mike García did in Los Angeles, where a mobilization was called forth by Occupy LA. In the protest, while speaking on behalf of the struggles of the janitors and immigrants, he made a call to construct an “Occupy ICE” movement. Ironically, while Mike García was calling for Occupy ICE in this mobilization, the janitors at the University of Stanford were fired from their jobs for being undocumented by the company Unnico – who was assisted by the union leadership. In the end, what Unnico did was to hire other undocumented immigrants but instead paid them a smaller salary and benefits.
Similarly, to reaffirm his “commitment to the struggle of immigrants”, Mike Garcia, announced to Occupy LA the union’s determination to conduct a strike on May 1st in order to defend the janitors’ demands in the next contract negotiations that was to begin in late March. It was in this way that the skillful USWW president again manipulated the membership with the illusion of fighting only to resubmit workers, with tied hands and feet, to the greediness of the employer.
In Los Angeles, the maneuvering union leadership had managed to evade the aspirations of the janitors in past negotiations by signing an agreement with the companies that granted certain benefits to full-time janitors in LA in order to lower the cost of wages of part-time janitors. This agreement was approved by a majority of the membership of Local 1877, minus the part-time janitors who began a fight to denounce union leaders for the discrimination against them.
In Northern California, the same leaders performed similar maneuvers to deceive the janitors as in the South, but there was a difference: the presence of an opposition group. Despite its weakened state, it was able reactivate itself and respond with proposals for mobilization to expose the lying leadership.
Also in the North, the contract campaign began by talking about preparations for a strike. Despite the dispersion of the janitors in the north because of all blows they received, the workers got news from the leadership to prepare for a serious strike. The opposition was aware that the announcement was a deception and responded to calls for strike preparation with concrete proposals, such as for the use of strike funds for the workers and for freezing salaries of union officers, so workers can live with a share of the funds determined by the solidarity fund for the duration of the strike. They also called to expand the picketing, make continuous demonstrations, and organize general assemblies to discuss the course of the negotiations with the workers.
These proposals of the opposition began to make sense for certain workers that saw the need for specific tasks in order to organize the strike and fight the companies. As soon as the union leadership realized it was playing with fire, it took back its proposal to strike. Instead, a general assembly was summoned in the San Jose office to call the janitors to accept a preliminary agreement that was reached with the companies in private. The calculation of the leadership was that many people would show up because of the state of frustration in which many workers found themselves in. But to their surprise, the attendance was only about 400 workers. There, the opposition managed to have a brave intervention in which it unmasked not only the tentative agreement proposed by the leadership but also the leadership’s calls to revoke the strike. This led half of the participants to be outraged against the tentative agreement- which froze wages, lowered insurance benefits, and the stability of the workers. After a furious struggle in which a physical altercation almost occurred with the attendees, the result of the vote was a tie- with the difference being three votes.
Faced with this situation, the leadership’s task in the following days was to continue their maneuvers. In two weeks they called a rigged vote in which they had total control of the polls both in the locals and job sites. In this way, the USWW bureaucracy carried out another vile treason against the workers and subjected them to worse conditions of exploitation and vulnerability against the bosses.
In any case, this last fight proved once again the validity of the opposition as an alternative to the treacherous leadership of the union. In addition, it showed the strength of its platform of struggle, which include the following principles: independence from the bosses and the government, workers’ democracy, fighting against the oppression of female workers, mobilization of the workers according to the aspirations of the majority of the membership.
Long live the opposition in Local USWW 1877!