Craft of Campaigns S2E2 | Training For Change

S2E2: Stephen Lerner on Justice for Janitors: A comeback story that continues today

March 12, 2024

Episode Guest

Stephen Lerner is a labor and community organizer who has spent more than three decades organizing hundreds of thousands of janitors, farm workers, garment workers, and other low-wage workers into unions, resulting in increased wages, first-time health benefits, paid sick days, and other improvements on the job. He was the Director of SEIU’s Property Service Divison, served on SEIU’s International Executive Board and is the architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign. He has published numerous articles charting a path for a 21st century labor movement focused on growth and meeting the challenges of a global economy. In 2014 he helped launch the Bargaining for Common Good campaign. Today he is a Senior Fellow at the Kalmanovitz institute at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Justice for Janitors: A comeback story that continues today

By Andrew Willis Garcés, also published on The Forge 

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After we recorded this episode, teachers, janitors, municipal employees and security officers in Minneapolis and St. Paul won historic contract victories after simultaneous strikes or strike votes, representing over 15,000 workers and a number of affiliated community organizations. 

I’m going to go a little out on a limb and say, there are currently at least four distinct strands of the labor movement in the US. 

The strand we hear about the most consists of unions whose members have negotiated strong contracts with big companies or public sector employers – the United Auto Workers, flight attendants and airline pilots, healthcare and public education workers. Another drawing a significant amount of mainstream news coverage over the last two years are the private sector unions who have won NLRB elections but haven’t yet bargained a first contract, like Starbucks Workers United and the Amazon Labor Union. There’s another, even within Amazon, represented by groups like Amazonians United and Warehouse Workers United, who are part of a third movement of worker organizations who’ve decided to start “acting like a union” without having a union contract as their immediate goal. A fourth strand consists of workers who aren’t covered by federal labor laws, like domestic and farm workers, and the millions who are improperly classified as independent contractors or are employed by temp agencies. 

Today’s episode shares how a national labor union that had been part of the first strand, whose members had been covered by strong contracts, lost nearly all of those contracts almost overnight, and then spent over a decade using ambitious “acting like a union” strategies before finally regaining significant power over their workplaces. The union was SEIU, and the wave of campaigns was called “Justice for Janitors.” These campaigns brought together office cleaners, who were largely undocumented immigrants, and new union organizers to take on billionaire office building owners and transform working conditions for tens of thousands of janitors. 

In many cities, like Los Angeles, the union lost 75% of their membership over just a year and a half in the mid-1980s, after a realignment of global capital meant bigger and bigger companies bought downtown office buildings and outsourced janitorial staff to non-union contractors to maximize their profits. After a decade of struggle, with simultaneous campaigns in LA, Denver, DC and other cities, SEIU began transforming the working conditions for janitors, while simultaneously connecting the labor conditions at office buildings to citywide issues of tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy and school funding.

There haven’t been many stories like it. And now, with the biggest private companies exerting more power than ever over our economy, it’s worth examining how they did it.  

“Acting Union”

To illustrate just how different the approach of the Justice for Janitors campaign was, and still is compared to most private sector labor organizing today, here’s a quote from one of the campaign strategists, talking about how they tried to pull some of the big corporate tenants of these large office buildings over to their side by leafleting outside the buildings at lunchtime. 

That strategist, Jono Shaffer, said in a recent interview:
“One of my favorite and most powerful leaflets we ever put out had a photo of a worker’s hand that was completely broken out with blisters from sticking his hand in and out of buckets of chemicals, without gloves, to clean. We took a photograph—this is before digital and the internet—got it developed, stuck it on a piece of paper, and wrote, “Shake the hand of the worker that cleans your building every night.” We passed it out in front of the buildings so that the people going in and out had to confront the fact that these workers weren’t being given the supplies they needed to work safely. And not surprisingly, we started seeing people getting gloves.

A traditional union organizing approach to something like that would have been to fight to win a union election, win that election, and then sit down at the bargaining table to try to win gloves. So, two-and-a-half years after the workers decided they needed gloves, there may be bargaining to win a pair of gloves, where the next day out in front of the building saying this guy needs gloves—we call that “being union” or “acting union” from day one. That’s how you do it, and it takes a long time. The unions themselves, the institutions, have to be willing to forego short term wins and traditional measurable outcomes like union elections.

Before I myself worked at SEIU in the mid-2000s, I thought all movement campaigns relied on just one form of leverage. 

  • Thousands of people blocked traffic, and the International Monetary Fund conference couldn’t happen. 
  • One city councilmember was sufficiently shamed by the tenants that lived in his district, and then he flipped to support their housing bill. 
  • At my undergraduate university in 2003, students showed the board of trustees there was broad opposition to a planned new Starbucks, as part of a nationwide fair trade coffee movement, and got an independent fair trade only store installed instead. 

But this story, and many of the campaigns against the most dug-in opponents, needed to pry open multiple points of leverage

The Beginning: Looking for Leverage

The Justice for Janitors campaign came out of the decision by some SEIU leaders to try a totally new approach to unionization, outside of NLRB elections, which would require them to obtain far more leverage over their corporate targets than before, beginning with fights in Pittsburgh and Denver. The campaign to unionize downtown office building janitors in DC started in 1987, shortly after those first campaigns, with a long period in which the union conducted research to understand the local office building market. SEIU staff came to realize not all office buildings were the same. The janitorial companies hired throughout the city made the most money from the largest buildings, what are called Class A office buildings, where tenants paid top dollar. These were rented by law firms, financial firms, lobbyists, and most were owned by big regional or national real estate companies who also owned office buildings in other cities. That was good for the union, because it meant they had the possibility of putting pressure on the same targets in multiple cities at once.

Union leaders decided to focus on one owner, Carr Properties, who controlled about 10% of that downtown market, because they thought he could be the first domino to fall – that if they got him to tell his cleaning contractors not to oppose the union, it would be easier to convince the next most important real estate companies. Their first challenge was to convince low-paid immigrant janitors to form an organizing committee, despite the fact that they were very exposed to anti-union retaliation and probably weren’t going to win their campaign quickly. 

Then organizers had to create a public perception that office building owners were intentionally keeping immigrant workers living in poverty, contrasting their experience with that of unionized janitors in New York who were paid living wages. And they worked to connect the dots between other issues of concern, like the underfunding of public schools, to the unwillingness of these same companies to pay their fair share of property taxes. It wasn’t easy to create an “everyone vs. rich landlords” narrative, because the real estate lobby was so ingrained in local politics. There were even progressive churches that refused to support the union because they had sold the rights to build above their land to some of the same building owners. 

But SEIU was able to change the public story about janitors’ working conditions over time, so that when they started to create massive disruptions in the early 90’s, like blocking key commuter roads and bridges downtown, the public was on their side. But the union didn’t just threaten the building owners’ political connections and public image, they also cost them real money. They consistently created disruptions at Carr Properties buildings that annoyed the tenants, who might have thought twice about renewing their leases. Many of these companies counted on investments by giant pension funds that were controlled by union members in other states, and SEIU leveraged those relationships to put their targets’ financing at risk. 

Eventually some of those pension funds adopted responsible contractor policies, which required many office buildings partly owned by the funds to pay living wages. And the union eventually timed labor contracts to expire at the same time in multiple cities, making it even harder for the same big office building owners to ignore one local union on strike at a time. And while they campaigned against one of the biggest landlords, Carr Properties, they also looked for opportunities to go after smaller players in the DC market, and over a decade, finally got to winning union contracts covering 10% of the downtown office building market. After that, it took them much less time to get to 30%, and then by the mid-2000s, had over half of the market. Today, 150,000 unionized janitors in a dozen cities make far more than their counterparts in nonunion buildings. 

Lessons for Organizers Outside Unions: Change with the Game

Architects of this campaign went way outside the typical “union playbook” at the time. They had to adapt to the reality that the building owners could ban them from the workplace, and that the five janitors who cleaned an office building at night couldn’t easily disrupt the building’s operations. So their disruptions had to be especially creative. In the Los Angeles campaign, the organizers took aim at a real estate developer from Chicago, going as far as inviting people around the country to ship him their garbage. 

They had to create a real threat of chaos at the workplace, as all union recognition campaigns do. But they also had to cut off the financing to some of the country’s largest building owners who relied on tax breaks and investments by union pension funds to buy up or redevelop their properties. They had to elect pro-janitor champions to key city councils. In DC, they even had to get congressional leaders to feel so threatened by the janitors’ campaign that they, too, put pressure on the most anti-union office building owners. These are corporate campaigns or comprehensive campaigns, which squeeze an opponent from many sides all at once. 

You might be asking yourself, what do janitors organizing for better wages and working conditions have to do with me, if I don’t organize in a union? There are at least three big lessons for any of us campaigning to move a truly tough target, particularly when “the game has changed” – as it did for the SEIU, when global real estate firms began firing unionized cleaning contractors in the 1980s. 

Lesson #1: Doing whatever it takes to win, sometimes means expanding way beyond your original campaign goals. The most successful Justice for Janitors campaigns ended up taking aim at corporate tax breaks and even school funding as a way of creating a crisis for corporate CEOs, much as the highest-profile teachers union fights in Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities engaged way more parents and community members as active supporters by including demands for affordable housing and mental health services. These combined labor-community fights, which are often referred to as the “bargaining for the common good” approach, show the importance of using campaign demands to recruit specific constituencies we need to upend the pillars of support upholding the status quo. 

Lesson #2: When the game is rigged, don’t follow the rules. The janitors’ union refused to follow the NLRB election process, the same process that has seen Starbucks and Amazon workers stuck in neutral following a wave of high profile workplace organizing, struggling to win store by store and facility by facility against incredibly effective harassment keeping them from negotiating a first contract. Instead, SEIU strategists decided early on that they would either cost real estate developers the money, political and community support they relied on to do business, forcing them to hire union cleaning contractors, or they wouldn’t win at all. 

Lesson #3: Have the courage to say we aren’t winning, even when that causes friction with our comrades. When this story begins, SEIU’s leaders at locals that represented office building cleaners were, as Stephen tells it, in a liar’s club together, pretending everything was fine, even as they were dramatically losing membership, unable to respond to the sharp changes in the industry itself. Many of the campaigns in our first season started this way too: a few visionaries dissatisfied with what counted for effective organizing, who had to find a few more accomplices willing to try something new. 

I recommend listening to the full conversation with Stephen Lerner to hear more about how the spirit of this campaign continues today, but here’s an update that happened after this interview was recorded: as a result of this incredible comeback story, an unprecedented victory over entrenched corporate power, over 150,000 janitors are now protected by strong contracts.

How strong? In December, after 20,000 cleaners in New York threatened to go on strike, they won a 3% pay increase, bumping the typical annual salary to more than $69,000, and the agreement allows members to retire early at age 60 after fifteen years on the job. And last year DC janitors won an additional month of unpaid leave to resolve immigration-related issues, bringing the total to 120 days per year, and have access to the union’s Legal Services Fund, which is fully paid for by the cleaning contractors the janitors work for.