They may be the invisible underclass of California's booming economy, but without them the offices of Los Angeles' rich and powerful would be reduced to dust and filth. Sensing their power, the city's janitors and office cleaners are laying down their mops and toilet brushes and taking to the streets this week to demand a share of the economic good times.
In an extraordinarily effective rolling strike, the janitors have already disrupted much of downtown Los Angeles home to thousands of hot-shot lawyers, oil company executives and all the main city and county administrative offices and intend to extend their protest to the entire metropolitan area by the end of the week.
Punching the air with their fists and chanting "Si, se puede!" Spanish for "yes, we can!" the protesters have blocked freeway exits and traffic crossroads. They have formed picket lines outside the gleaming corporate towers of Bunker Hill, Glendale and Burbank. They have successfully lobbied both the city council and the Los Angeles county board of supervisors.
And, in a brilliant propaganda coup, they have guaranteed themselves extensive media coverage by refusing to clean the toilets at the downtown headquarters of the Los Angeles Times.
This may look like a quirky local dispute, but the 8,500 unionised janitors of southern California have proved to be in the vanguard of a resurgent labour movement across the US. Their "Janitors for Justice" campaign, begun a decade ago, has won them union representation, wage bargaining power and health benefits.
Now they are joining forces with other service workers, notably truck drivers and hotel and restaurant employees, and are threatening not only to disrupt the booming business life of the city but also to embarrass Al Gore and the rest of the Democratic Party notables at their National Convention in Los Angeles this August. Already this week, truck drivers from the Teamsters union have refused to cross the janitors' picket lines, provoking further disruption to businesses. Many companies have bussed in non-unionised replacement cleaners, leading to moments of seething tension as police hold back the lines of protesters in the streets.
The janitors, who are overwhelmingly Hispanic and generally live in small tenement apartments occupied by several families, are demanding wage increases to keep up with the spiralling cost of living, notably housing. They want their hourly rate to go up by $1 every year for the next three years. Their employers, however, have offered less money and no guarantee that their hard-won health benefits will be maintained, arguing that any increase will put them at a competitive disadvantage with non-unionised workers who receive the legal minimum of $5.75 an hour. About 30 per cent of Los Angeles janitors are non-unionised.
"I have three children," said Victoria Marquez, who cleans a Beverly Hills building and earns one of the lowest janitors' rates, said at a rally earlier this week. "How am I going to give my children a decent education on $6.80 an hour in Beverly Hills?" The janitors' struggle has attracted the attention of that indefatigable class warrior, the British film director Ken Loach, whose forthcoming movie Bread and Roses chronicles the unionisation battle of the early 1990s. Mr Loach spent six weeks filming in Los Angeles last autumn, and last weekend sent a solidarity fax from his offices in London. "Good luck for a great day on Monday [the day of the first big demonstration] and victory in the campaign," said the message.
Bread and Roses, which is still in post-production, tells the story of two Hispanic sisters who risk both penury and deportation for their involvement in the unionisation drive. It uses a mixture of professional actors and real-life janitors to portray the dramatic events that led to a national awareness campaign and the successful formation of a union in 1993.
"A lot of people on strike now are in the film," Mr Loach's producer, Rebecca O'Brien, said. "They are incredibly creative activists, quite cheeky even in their ability to bring traffic to a standstill and cause maximum disruption with minimal numbers." When the Justice for Janitors movement began, police used batons to beat back protesters outside corporate offices in an echo of Los Angeles' notorious past as a rabidly anti-union town.
Now, with a strongly pro-union culture in both the city of Los Angeles and California as a whole, and with the state's vast Latino population breaking through into the political mainstream for the first time, official sympathies are veering towards the protesters. "In these prosperous times, people deserve to have a decent wage," said Antonio Villaraigosa, the speaker of the California state assembly and a leading candidate in next year's mayoral election in Los Angeles. "This struggle will tell us what kind of city we live in, one of just rich and poor, or one where we're helping people up."
© 2000 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.