On this day in 1990, hundreds of striking janitors fed up with wealthy corporate CEO’s paying themselves millions, while paying service employees as little as $4.50 an hour held a peaceful march and demonstration in Los Angeles’ Century City district. This was the defining moment in the Justice for Janitors movement that would later bring widespread change and raise living standards for an important service industry.
Justice for Janitors was a campaign to unite janitors with the goal of achieving social and economic justice. In the early 1980’s, the average janitor could expect to earn a salary of more than $7.00 an hour including full family health insurance however by 1986, wages dropped significantly to $4.50, and health care coverage had evaporated.
As a result the Service Employees International Union stepped in to protect their members and preserve the economic and social progress service employees had enjoyed.
In Los Angeles, widespread public outrage ensued prompting International Service Systems (ISS), who was the major cleaning contractor in LA to sign a union contract. Janitors won a wage increase and went from having no health benefits to full family health coverage.
The success of the janitors in Los Angeles paved the way for other major metropolitan cities to stand together and win fair pay and medical coverage for janitors. Justice for Janitors utilized master contracts, which apply to all union janitors across different markets. This allows union workers in other markets to share in the accomplishments of other union workers.
In other cities across the country, Justice for Janitors campaign has fighting rising healthcare costs — and winning. Community support is helping janitors in other major cities win contracts that maintain and even expand employer-paid health coverage.
More than two hundred thousand janitors in 29 cities throughout the United States united and won several benefits including family health insurance, livable wages, full-time work, and better working conditions.
Living Conditions of Janitors in Houston
Prior to Justice for Janitors, the average monthly salary for a full time janitor was $720. To put this into perspective, take a large metropolitan city like Houston, which was active during the Justice for Janitors Campaign. Measured conservatively, an average Houston household of 4 must earn $1,000 a month to be at the poverty line. In a one working parent household, a janitor is significantly under the poverty line.
Justice for Janitors fought to raise wages but most importantly restore full time positions. Virtually all of Houston’s commercial office janitors had to work several low-paying, part-time jobs to make ends meet. This entailed working 50 or 60 hours a week just to cover their basic living expenses.
The irregular hours and long travel times kept workers constantly on the go, away from their families. This added travel time often interfered with the janitors sleep schedule. A janitor may only be able to catch a few hours of sleep before sending his or her children off to school and heading to a second job on the other side of town.
The hardship of these janitors has been widely documented on blogs and news outlets. It wasn’t uncommon for janitors to work several jobs as well as clean homes on the side to supplement their income. All this while operating on as little as 3-4 hours of sleep. As you can imagine this was unsustainable and was temporary solution to a much greater issue.
On the 24 year anniversary, we celebrate the power of people and community by revisiting this historic events.