Hundreds of rowdy union members chanted, blew whistles and snarled traffic as they marched Tuesday through downtown Los Angeles, which can mean only one thing: The janitors are back.
Three years ago, seeking higher pay, union office janitors staged a colorful 10-day strike that highlighted the stagnating wages of the working poor in a booming economy.
They won a contract that raised starting pay by 27% to about $10 an hour -- higher than the minimum wage but still below the union scale of 20 years ago when adjusted for inflation.
That contract expires at midnight tonight, and although relations with employers are better than they were in 2000, talk of a huelga, or strike, rumbled through Tuesday’s crowd.
The union is seeking unspecified wage increases, but the main issue is health care. With costs soaring, janitorial contractors -- and the building managers who hire them -- are pressing the county’s 9,000 organized janitors to contribute 25% to insurance premiums. Currently, they pay nothing for full-family health insurance.
Mike Garcia, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1877, said any attempt to make janitors contribute to health care coverage is a deal breaker.
“We realize we have to be in line with today’s economic reality,” Garcia said, noting that rents are down and vacancy rates are up in much of Los Angeles County. “But we need to hold on to that one basic component of full coverage. Our members are the working poor; they can’t afford to pay much out of pocket.”
Garcia’s local also represents janitors in Orange and San Diego counties and Silicon Valley, where separate contract negotiations are underway. All the contracts expire tonight, but no strike votes have been taken, and any action would be unlikely until late May, Garcia said.
In Los Angeles, the union and janitorial contractors agreed to seek mediation if a deal isn’t reached within a week. Negotiations are being held at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.
“We hope by the end of tomorrow [Wednesday] we’ll have a deal,” said Alan D. Levy, chairman of Cushman International and head of the labor relations committee for the Building Owners and Maintenance Organization in Los Angeles.
Unlike in previous years, Levy and members of his committee are sitting in on the talks -- an acknowledgment of their role in setting janitorial rates. In the last round of talks, building managers said they had no influence over the rates because the work was outsourced to contractors.
Levy said managers have seen that providing benefits and good pay can be cost-effective in the long run because it creates a more stable workforce. At the same time, he noted, the industry is in a slump, making it more difficult to be generous at the table.
“Things are not as rosy now as they were three years ago,” he said, “and I think the union is trying to be realistic.”
Direct negotiations have been held between the union and 18 janitorial contractors, represented at the table by negotiator Dick Davis, since early March. Davis could not be reached for comment.
Marchers clad in purple union shirts started at union headquarters in the Pico-Union District at noon and ended near Los Angeles City Hall, where local politicians waited on a podium. Police estimated the crowd at 1,500.