Janitorial Justice

Americans may have divided over the war in Iraq this spring, but one thing that brought them together was their health coverage. It was shrinking.

From state to state and sector to sector, job-based health insurance either covered less or cost more or -- the insurance companies were loath to force a choice on us -- both.

One group managed to evade this bonding national experience, however: the janitors who clean the high-rise office buildings in America's downtowns. I know this sounds preposterous. Many janitors are immigrants, and many are here without legal status. They have no apparent power. Many don't speak English. So how is it that this spring, while the two-thirds of Americans who have health coverage were being told they would have to pay more to keep it, the janitors were getting their coverage upgraded?

If this runs counter to everything you know about power in America, you probably have forgotten about unions. At minimum, you have forgotten about unions that organize so many workers in a single sector that those workers can win some real power over the conditions of their work.

It's an understandable oversight: Such unions are few and far between. What with the mobility of capital, the intransigence of employers and the impotence of labor law, many unions have decided to abandon organizing altogether. Others have opted to go after the more plausibly organizable workers in the public sector, where employer opposition is often muted. The United Auto Workers (UAW) has found it easier to pick up teaching assistants at the University of California than assembly-line workers at nonunion auto plants in the South. This doesn't strengthen the UAW's bargaining power in auto, but it certainly brings in new members.

In the mid-1980s, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chose the more challenging course. The SEIU had begun as a union of janitors, but in one city after another, building owners were firing their unionized workers and hiring immigrant workers just arrived from Mexico and Central America. The SEIU was already established as the major public employee union in California, and the better part of valor would have been to build its public-sector membership (which it's done anyway) and forget the janitors.

Instead, it built the "Justice for Janitors" movement, employing hundreds of organizers, cultivating public sympathy, applying political leverage and mobilizing a raucous rank-and-file whose bells-and-whistles demonstrations are now a regular feature in many American cities. The union's janitorial membership swelled to more than 200,000, and this spring, janitors in Chicago got employers to pay more for expanded family coverage; janitors in Orange County, Calif., got employers to pay for family coverage for the first time; and janitors in Boston and Washington got employers to begin to pay for part-timers' health coverage too. "Union density trumped a bad economy," says Stephen Lerner, who heads the SEIU's building services division. It has also given the janitors more leverage when organizing in new cities.

This morning in Chicago, two other unions are embarking on what looks to be a long, hard organizing campaign at a vehemently anti-union company -- because they can't build real sectoral bargaining power if this company stays nonunion. Bruce Raynor, president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and James P. Hoffa of the Teamsters are announcing a joint organizing drive at Cintas Corp., the nation's largest uniform rental and cleaning company. UNITE will target the workers in the plants, most of them immigrants making less than $9 an hour; the Teamsters, of course, will go after the drivers.

With domestic clothing manufacturing growing smaller every day, UNITE could have opted for health-care or public-sector organizing. Instead, it has chosen to organize harder targets closer to home -- apparel distribution and industrial laundries. In the past half-decade, it has unionized about one-third of the large-scale laundry business, but Cintas is the industry giant that will drag wages down so long as it's nonunion.

Like Andrew Stern, the president of the SEIU, and John Wilhelm, the president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, Raynor believes that the scramble of other unions to pick up new members outside their core industries adds little to union power at a time when the labor movement's continued existence is no sure thing. "Just organizing anybody you can is a formula for unions to decline," he insists.

Raynor, Wilhelm and Stern, who are widely admired for converting their unions into organizing machines, are prodding their fellow presidents to restructure labor's house along sectoral lines. A battle is shaping up that may spill over into the contest to succeed John Sweeney as AFL-CIO president. The three presidents are encountering serious opposition from union leaders who don't want to change -- though I doubt they'll get an argument from the couple of hundred thousand janitors and their families who don't have to pay more to see their doctors.

Note: This article has been corrected since it first appeared. The United Auto Workers organized teaching assistants at the University of California, not the University of Michigan.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the Prospect.

This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

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