Janitors agree to go back to table

Times Staff Writer

The strike by Los Angeles janitors has been a peculiar one, involving not just the typical rallies and walkouts but also videos posted on YouTube, workers who are still largely on the job and now a cooling-off period brokered by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a onetime labor organizer.

The janitors union agreed Thursday to resume contract talks during a meeting with Villaraigosa, one day after they voted to authorize a strike and staged spot walkouts at locations across the county.

The janitors also agreed to scrap plans for more walkouts during the negotiations with cleaning contractors. Contract talks are expected to continue into the weekend.

Calling it a "fruitful meeting," Villaraigosa said that "ultimately, it's in all of our best interests to find a fair and fast resolution that protects the working families and meets the needs of businesses in L.A."

Negotiations between the janitors and cleaning contractors broke down early Wednesday, a week after the previous contract expired. That contract was negotiated in 2003.

Within hours, union members overwhelmingly authorized a strike and began staging walkouts at about 40 buildings, including properties owned by Douglas Emmett Inc. and Maguire Properties Inc.

Only about 450 of the union's 6,000 Los Angeles County janitors, or less than 10%, walked off the job, said Mike Garcia, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1877. The janitors work primarily at commercial office buildings.

A strike in which most workers keep working isn't quite by the book, but such a strategy fits well with this union's history of creative tactics, said Harley Shaiken, a professor at UC Berkeley who specializes in labor issues.

Dozens of janitors crashed a Cinco de Mayo party thrown by the Building Owners and Managers Assn. on Wednesday night, chanting, "We're on strike, let the rich people clean." Afterward, the union posted video of the rally on YouTube. By posting the clip, Shaiken said, the union created "a virtual picket line."

"What we're seeing now is innovative and different, but it didn't appear yesterday," Shaiken said. "This is a union that's been strategically very savvy from when it first began organizing janitors, particularly immigrant janitors. It's raised a lot of issues and it's tended to be quite effective."

Shaiken said the online clips could help the janitors curry widespread support as in 2000, when they staged a three-week work stoppage that drew national political figures, including former Vice President Al Gore and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. That strike helped galvanize immigrant workers across the nation and was considered a watershed moment for Los Angeles labor.

Hoping to prevent the strike from escalating as it did eight years ago, Villaraigosa called a closed-door meeting at City Hall between the janitors and key building owners to encourage the two sides to return to the bargaining table. Although the contract negotiations are technically between the janitors and the cleaning companies that hire them, building owners hold significant leverage in moving negotiations along, labor experts said.

Because the owners pay the contractors for janitorial services, they can threaten to stop hiring a cleaning company if prices get too high. But if a strike becomes widespread and disruptive, owners might feel pressured to settle quickly rather than risk bad publicity, Shaiken said.

The union is seeking unspecified wage increases, but the main issue is to narrow the gap between janitors with the highest and the lowest pay, Garcia said. Janitors in downtown Los Angeles and Century City earn $1.30 an hour more on average than janitors in outlying areas, he said.

Dick Davis, chief negotiator for the contractors, said the cleaning companies had already offered a "historic" package that included 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.

The total package, including benefits, amounted to an increase of $3.55 an hour for downtown and Century City janitors and $3.35 an hour for Westside janitors, he said.

"Employees need and deserve to know the truth about the wage and benefit improvements that they've been offered," Davis said. "We call on all parties and their representatives to focus on the facts."

In Orange County, where 2,000 janitors are represented by Local 1877, members voted Saturday to authorize a strike. Walkouts haven't occurred there yet.

Eugenio Barrera attended the union's initial strike rally in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday. Barrera, 43, works a night shift at an office building in Westwood.

"It's unfair to me that the companies are denying us," he said. "We need benefits, recognition and respect for the hard work we do."



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