Sacramento Workers Win Four-Year Organizing Drive Despite Tremendous Obstacles
One of the longest-running organizing drives in California history came to a conclusion at the end of March when Somers Building Maintenance signed a union contract in Sacramento.
The epic struggle of a dogged group of Sacramento janitors had gone on for four years. Pitting the national Justice for Janitors campaign of the Service Employees International Union against a company union, the campaign saw mass arrests, beatings of union supporters, the firing of a representative of the Secretary of Labor, Republican-led Congressional hearings, and an 11-day march to the shareholders meeting of Hewlett-Packard, Somers' largest client.
"This was a relentless company," said Mike Garcia, president of SEIU Local 1877. "We had to fight harder than with any other we've ever faced. But we're even more relentless."
After Local 1877 organized 20,000 workers in the building service industry in Los Angeles and the Bay Area in the early 1990s, it began unionizing efforts in Sacramento. There it came up against Somers. With 600 employees, it is the city's largest building service company.
Somers workers began signing union cards in 1995. "Even though I work full time, I only earn $12,500 per year," explained Somers janitor Marta Villalobos. "I have no health insurance for my four kids, and my husband and I live in fear that any unexpected illness will put us on the street."
Organizers explained to them that Local 1877 had won better wages in Silicon Valley, Alameda County, and Los Angeles by organizing a majority of building service companies. Previously, contractors there competed against each other, trying to win cleaning contracts with large building owners by cutting wages and benefits. Union agreements standardized wages.
After winning workers' support, Local 1877 asked Somers to recognize the union. The union sought to avoid the National Labor Relations Board process, since it normally involves lengthy legal battles, intimidation, and firings.
The company refused. "Our employees don't want a union at all," a spokesman said at the time. Somers hired the west coast's best-known anti-union law firm, Littler, Mendelssohn, Fastiff and Tichy.
A few weeks later, Somers recognized a sham union organized by an ex-supervisor, and signed a contract with it containing no wage increase. Eventually, the NLRB ruled that it was an illegal company union, and threw out the contract.
Justice for Janitors built a community coalition that took on Hewlett-Packard, which uses Somers to clean five Sacramento-area buildings. The coalition asked H-P to take responsibility for the low wages and conditions of the workers and halt the anti-union tactics used by its contractor.
Marlene Somsak, a public relations spokesperson for Hewlett-Packard, says the company opposed this corporate campaign, which she referred to as "the use of neutral parties as battlegrounds."
Republican politicians lined up behind H-P in an effort to outlaw the janitors' tactics. In 1996, Michigan Republican Pete Hoekstra got then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich to fire his western representative, Richard Sawyer, alleging that Sawyer had intervened with Hewlett-Packard on behalf of the union. Hoekstra's government oversight committee held hearings, using the Somers case as an example of the need to outlaw union corporate campaign tactics.
According to Art Pulaski, executive secretary of the California Labor Federation, the hearings gave the labor movement a big stake in beating Somers. "This isn't just a fight in one company," he said. "The effort to deny janitors the right to their union is part of a larger right-wing strategy, using the political process to make it impossible for other workers to organize."
In 1997, Pulaski and others were arrested as they paraded through the streets of Sacramento in defiance of the city's ban on marches by the janitors.
Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna eventually felt so much political heat that he reluctantly offered to mediate between Somers and the union; he publicly criticized the company when it rebuffed his offer.
Finally, janitors marched last year for 11 days from Sacramento to Cupertino to bring their case before Hewlett-Packard's stockholders meeting. The combined pressure of Local 1877's varied tactics was enough to begin an arduous negotiation process, which resulted in the agreement.
The new contract lifts wages 25 cents immediately, with another 20 cents in November. In the course of the four-year campaign, the company began offering sick leave and medical benefits, which were incorporated into the agreement.
"It's not everything we hoped for, but it finally establishes the union's relationship with the company," explained janitor Hilda Avila. "Next time we can go back and get things we couldn't get this time."
The contract expires next year, at the same time as other building service agreements nationally. The union is planning a campaign for a national master contract which would tie conditions together and then raise them at companies throughout the country.
Although Local 1877 members clean Hewlett-Packard's main Silicon Valley complex, relations between the company and the union grew so bitter that its Sacramento buildings were excluded from the Somers contract. Nevertheless, the pact sets up a process in which those and other non-union buildings can become unionized.
The Somers contract had an immediate effect on other Sacramento contractors as well, two of whom signed agreements the day after the Somers contract was unveiled.