Corporate America’s Security-Guards-in-Blue : Unions: When L.A. officers used their nightsticks against striking janitors, an era long ended suddenly returned.

<i> Antonio H. Rodriguez is an attorney in </i> private practice in Los Angeles. Gloria J. Romero is an assistant <i> professor of psychology at Cal State Los Angeles. Both are members of the Latino Community Justice Center. </i>

The brutal assault by Los Angeles police officers on striking janitors and their supporters last week in Century City will be remembered in labor history as a classic example of the use of police force to defend corporate interests against workers’ movements.

As part of its “Justice for Janitors” organizing campaign in Century City office towers, Local 399 of the Service Employees International Union attempted to hold a nonviolent march and labor rally last Friday. In a scene reminiscent of turn-of-the-century union struggles, the police broke up the march and, without legal cause, beat participants at the gateway to Century City--one of the major centers of international finance and playground of the very rich.

In the aftermath, 40 marchers were arrested. Dozens were bloodied and suffered injuries ranging from broken bones to bruises. A woman, five months’ pregnant, was hospitalized.

The action of the LAPD violated the strikers’ rights to organize, assemble, have freedom of movement and be free of police violence--all guaranteed by the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This type of suppression of workers in the United States may be shocking to many. Had the crackdown occurred in the Soviet Union, China or in a pre-Chamorro Nicaragua, everyone from President Bush to Police Chief Darryl Gates would have condemned it. But it occurred in Los Angeles. So our elected officials remain silent lest they incur the wrath of Gates and the powerful police Establishment.

The LAPD’s extreme actions were perpetrated against the poorest and most disfranchised of workers--the janitors who clean Century City offices during the early morning hours while most of us are sleeping. Predominantly immigrant, female and Latino, these janitors labor for wages that hover around $4.50 per hour. They work under hazardous safety conditions, using chemical cleaning materials that often leave them with skin rashes and burns.

One would expect that the police would have understood, perhaps even sympathized, with the strikers. After all, police officers are also unionized.

So what was the motivation of the police officers to attack the strikers?

Was it contempt for poor people, or racism? We think this played a role. Can you recall a time when white professionals received such treatment on a picket line?

Was it that officers believe that police control is more important than the exercise of First Amendment rights? We think this was also true. The police department has virtually admitted that no one had broken any laws. Its preemptive strike against the marchers, the LAPD says, was necessary because of a rumor that traffic would be disrupted.

Or was it that those who used force to suppress nonviolent marchers were simply beleaguered officers who overreacted at the sight of 400 union members entering non-union Century City? This is doubtful. According to union sources, police officials met secretly with Century City building owners before the march.

Regardless of the motive, the result is that LAPD officers acted as corporate America’s security guards and violently busted the strikers at taxpayers’ expense.

Try as it will, the LAPD cannot concoct an excuse for this latest example of a long history of police brutality. Local 399 has now filed a lawsuit against the department. Once again taxpayers will bear the cost of defending some baton-happy officers.

Mayor Tom Bradley has ordered the Police Commission to investigate the incident, a commendable step. However, additional steps are necessary to ensure justice in this case. Unlike other police investigations in the past, the commission must make this speedy and public. Swift disciplinary action, including criminal prosecution, must be brought against offending officers. Unjustified charges filed against the marchers must be dismissed. And finally, the commission must develop a policy to prevent future occurrences of brutality and halt the use of police as tools against the labor movement.

Mayor Bradley and the City Council should also understand the morality of the janitors’ quest for better working conditions and wages, and push for a just and speedy negotiated settlement to the strike. After all, the city’s elected officials have just benefitted from a hefty pay hike that gives them more than 10 times the earnings of the average Latino janitor seeking justice in Century City.