Janitors in the Los Angeles Area

Published in The Social Contract
Volume 6, Number 4 (Summer 1996)
Issue theme: "The battle for official English"

In the post-World War II period, the janitors working in the high rise districts of Los Angeles, about half of whom were U.S. blacks, had won excellent wages and working conditions under the leadership of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). But in the early 1980s, a group of aggressive nonunion firms, who hired predominantly illegal workers, were able to wrest the best building contracts from the unionized firms. As a result, wages fell and most of the U.S.-born black janitors lost their jobs. In Los Angeles in the late 1970s and early 1980s, two groups of janitorial firms came into intense competition with each other large, unionized contractors, and midsized, nonunion contractors.

The large contractors had a heavily U.S.-born black work force. Compensation in 1983 at the peak had reached over $12 an hour including benefits. Its work force was represented by Local 399 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) which had successfully used the strike threat to win well-paying, full-time jobs for the workers it represented. At the beginning of this period, the large, unionized contractors controlled almost all of the lucrative contracts in the high rise buildings in downtown Los Angeles. Meanwhile the mid-sized, nonunion firms paid less than $4 per hour, had a predominantly Hispanic international migrant work force, and specialized in contracts for the smaller suburban buildings. In one surveyed nonunion firm, 94 percent of its workers were found to be working in the United States illegally. The gap in labor costs between the types of firms exposed the unionized firms to attack.

In the early 1980s, a small group of aggressive midsized firms sensed the vulnerability of the unionized firms and made their move. At labor costs half as large as those of the unionized firms, the new contenders made attractive offers to building managers. By 1985, the nonunion firms had succeeded in winning away most of the downtown contracts from the large firms. The union was forced through this competition to sign special contracts in suburban areas at $4 an hour and below. Meanwhile, the higher-paid standard agreement contracts shrunk to cover only 100 workers.

In 1977, the union estimated that approximately 2,500 black janitors were working under union protection. By 1985, this number had declined to 600 of which only 100 were still protected by a high-wage contract the other 500 were covered by a less generous contract and had suffered a cut in compensation.

'by 1983 the tide had turned

against the native janitors.

The union went into rapid decline

and wages fell precipitously.'

The native workers protected by Local 399 had experienced steadily improving conditions since the late 1940s. Even during the 1977 to 1983 period, the union was able to protect its workers with a viable strike threat at the large unionized companies. However, by 1983, the tide had turned against the native janitors. The union went into rapid decline and wages fell precipitously.

Evidence of the decline in wages for Los Angeles janitors as a result of the use of predominantly illegal aliens by nonunion contracting firms was disclosed by survey research among employers and workers. This drop in wages was independently corroborated by government statistics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' survey of a sample of janitorial firms revealed a 14 percent drop in wages from 1983 to 1985. This drop occurred even though these years witnessed a period of economic expansion and increased demand for janitors in Los Angeles.

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