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Chicago Janitors Fight For Justice

by Jeff Danielski |
June 1, 2000
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Big march with signs and banners
Striking Chicago janitors march for justice. (Fight Back! News)

Chicago, IL - In the final two weeks of April, suburban Chicago janitors made history, setting an example for low-wage "illegal" workers everywhere.

On April 28, ten days after the start of their strike, members of Service Employees International Union, Local 1, ratified a new contract that will bring important improvements in wages, benefits and respect for about 4,000 workers. Most of the strikers were women, and all of them were immigrants from Latin America, Poland and the former Yugoslavia.

The janitors' victory shows that low-wage workers who speak little or no English can beat the bosses with sacrifice, hard work, and an aggressive fight that challenges companies in a public campaign for justice.

For years, downtown Chicago janitors have made more than twice as much money and benefits as their suburban co-workers. This difference in wages and benefits between downtown and the suburbs was the work of a corrupt and lazy union president who, for many years, refused to organize non-union workers in the suburbs. Union companies began to pay lower and lower wages in order to compete with the growing non-union companies, and the union did nothing to protect its members against this process.

In 1996, the union leadership was removed from office by the International union, and a suburbs-wide "Justice for Janitors" campaign began to develop a core of militant and committed workers to prepare for a long-term struggle to bridge the gap between downtown and the suburbs.

The three years leading up to the 2000 contract fight were filled with leadership trainings, rallies and demonstrations, and arrests of workers for blocking streets, occupying non-union buildings, and passing out information on private property. All of these activities brought the situation of the uninsured, underpaid janitors to public attention. In addition, the fight for family health insurance and decent wages was shown to the media and community groups as an example of the wider social crisis in health care and pay for the working poor in the United States.

The contract victory was the result of unity and militancy. As the old contract expiration date came and went, the cleaning companies' proposal for the suburban contract remained the same: no family health insurance, and only a $.90 pay raise over four years. The companies did not believe that janitors would really go on strike, even though the Los Angeles janitors were striking at that very moment on the other side of the country. They said that the workers were too disorganized and afraid of problems with immigration agents to put up any fight at all.

Then, on April 18, janitors in suburban office buildings began a strike that grew in all directions over the two weeks that followed. Marches were organized in the wealthy Chicago suburbs, and thousands of janitors blocked traffic for hours. One hundred janitors went on a hunger strike for 48 hours, and a large group of janitors' children visited the largest building owner in Chicago to ask him if his children had health insurance. Janitors were arrested for blocking scab vans from entering their buildings. One janitor had her foot run over by a scab van.

In the final days of the strike, suburban janitors brought the fight downtown, putting up a massive picket line, which downtown workers refused to cross, in front of one of Chicago's largest and most expensive buildings. Then, during the morning rush hour of April 28, fifty-one janitors and Local 1 staff were arrested after having blocked one of the busiest intersections in the Chicago suburbs for over two hours, while 300 supporters cheered them on. That evening, the janitors' strike became the janitors' victory: the companies gave up, and offered a new three-year contract guaranteeing the janitors full family health insurance and $1.35 in raises.

The janitors' fight was not easy. The raises and benefits in the new contract are much less than what the hardworking janitors truly deserve for their backbreaking work. However, the strike was a victory because so many people said it couldn't happen. The bosses, reporters, and even some people in the union believed that these immigrant workers would never win a strike against the rich and powerful cleaning companies. They said that workers with "no skills" were too easy to replace, and too scared to stand together. They were wrong. The janitors struck, the buildings stayed dirty, and workers everywhere saw that a successful fight does not depend on the skills, language, race or sex of working people, it depends on sacrifice, radical tactics, and solidarity.

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