Hours after contract negotiations broke down, janitors authorized a strike in a near-unanimous vote Wednesday and launched walkouts at buildings across Los Angeles County.
The union is seeking unspecified wage increases, but the main issue is to narrow the gap between janitors with the highest and lowest pay, said Mike Garcia, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1877.
A two-tier pay system exists in the county, with janitors in downtown Los Angeles and Century City earning $1.30 an hour more on average than janitors in areas such as Santa Monica, the Westside and Burbank, Garcia said.
Separately, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he would hold a closed-door meeting today between union leaders and key building owners at City Hall. Janelle Erickson, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said, "Both sides understand that a prolonged strike would hurt both business and working families."
Garcia declined to name the commercial office buildings where the first walkouts were scheduled to begin Wednesday night, saying it would take away "the element of surprise." He said that if the union's demands were not met, widespread walkouts could begin next week.
Janitorial contractors "refused to make any progress on bridging the disparity, and the janitors feel very disrespected," Garcia said. "We're looking to get this resolved without a strike, but unfortunately the companies are unwilling to give us an economic proposal that settles the issues between us."
But Dick Davis, chief negotiator for the contractors, said the pay gap issue "was off the table, according to our understanding."
Davis said the cleaning companies offered annual raises of 50 cents an hour for three years and 55 cents for the fourth year under a proposed contract, but they were rebuffed. He said the total package, including benefits, amounted to a $3.55-an-hour increase.
"We're shocked that the union would act this way," Davis said. "They had in mind a certain offer and we didn't reach it, so now they have to justify a strike."
He said the building maintenance companies involved in the bargaining included Able, ABM Janitorial Services and DMS.
Local 1877's members include 6,000 janitors in Los Angeles County. Their contract, last renegotiated in 2003, expired April 30.
In Orange County, where 2,000 janitors are represented by the union, members voted Saturday to authorize a strike.
On Wednesday morning, about 600 janitors -- clad in purple union shirts and chanting "Si, se puede" ("Yes, we can") -- held a rally in downtown Los Angeles.
Rebeca Vazquez, 42, a janitor at Century Plaza Towers in Century City, said she attended "so that the companies see that we're not asleep, that we're awake and ready to fight."
Union organizer Raphael Leib said this round of contract negotiations was especially important given the current economic downturn. In Los Angeles County, janitors earn about $10.70 to $12 an hour.
"Right now, as the economy goes into a recession, the people who are hit hardest are the lowest-paid workers," Leib said. "Janitors are disproportionately affected."
The janitors have garnered support from other labor groups.
The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor has urged the county's 350 unions, representing 800,000 union members, to support the janitors by refusing to cross picket lines.
And the Orange County Labor Federation, which represents 80 labor unions and 140,000 union members, also announced support for the strike.
Garcia said the union was hoping to avert a strike as long as the one in 2000, when janitors staged a three-week work stoppage. That strike helped galvanize immigrant workers across the nation and was considered a watershed moment for Los Angeles labor.