Deep Dive Javier Gonzalez Labor Original

J4J: Inside an Epic Victory for American Labor

After decades of declining clout and shrinking membership, janitorial unions in Los Angeles led a labor movement revival at the end of the last century.
Legendary SEIU organizer Mike Garcia at a Janitors for Justice rally in Los Angeles in 2005.

By Javier Gonzalez / Original to ScheerPost

He walked into the conference room chest high, chin high, spirits high, and confident victory was near. What had once been considered just a ragtag group of janitors chanting for “Justicia” had become an army. It was week two of the historic strike in the immigrant capital of America, Los Angeles, and the year was 2000. Before taking his seat, Service Employees International Union Local 1877 President Mike Garcia announced our next step towards victory: A pilgrimage from downtown to Century City, the site of a vicious beating of the janitors by police nine years prior (during the also historic “Justice for Janitors” campaign, also led by SEIU). 

The march, to be led by major religious, civil rights, labor and political leaders, would shut down some major traffic arteries of the city and symbolically trespass into fancy white communities. LA Federation of Labor Secretary-Treasurer Miguel Contreras, the first Latino to head the largest labor council in America, committed the presence and support of the entire local labor movement. 

And the city would be paying attention: The public was already in crazy love with the janitors strike, an appealing David vs. Goliath battle pitting some of the most vulnerable, hard-working people in society against some of the wealthiest and most powerful real estate corporations in America, backed by the militarized Los Angeles Police Department. 

To boot, some of the worksites represented several of the most prosperous and recognizable brands and businesses in the world which helpfully amplified the union’s press strategy to get as many of the member janitors on TV as possible to cash in on months and months of intense media training. Our demand for a $1 per hour raise was more than reasonable and gaining public support each time it was mentioned in the press and at our marches. 

This is the story of the years of organizing and activism, the courage and intelligence, that made that moment possible, at a time when “liberal” California had been going through an anti-immigrant spree not that dissimilar from the one Donald Trump rode to the White House in 2016.

Scapegoated in the Golden State

It has been 20 years since the historic strike punctuated a historic rebound from an anti-immigrant era in which the state’s opportunistic politicians led an effective fear campaign to blame undocumented immigrants, particularly Latinos, for each and every single problem in California, peaking with the landslide passage of 1994’s scapegoating Proposition 187 with the avid support of then Gov. Pete Wilson. “They keep coming,” an ominous voice announced in one of Wilson’s campaign ads, as grainy film footage showed people rushing past a border crossing. 

Gov. Pete Wilson was not as crass as our current president, but he also rode to victory on immigrant scapegoating and fearmongering. This commercial was the epitome of his tactics as he tied himself to Proposition 187, which was nearly guaranteed to be found unconsititutional by the courts but which found overwhelming support among California voters.

If not quickly found unconstitutional in the courts, the so-called “Save Our State (SOS)” initiative would have prohibited undocumented immigrants from using non-emergency health care, public education, and other state-funded services, and mandated all state employees and law enforcement to investigate or report anybody “suspected” of violating immigration laws. Tens of thousands, many of them high school students, documented and not, had protested for months, but the fear-mongering propaganda worked all too well; the proposition found majority support in every county across the state except a handful in the Bay Area, and was approved by 59 percent of California voters. 

But the children of the Prop. 187 struggle, myself included, were not defeated. Only a few years later an emboldened labor movement would be spearheaded by a strike of mostly immigrant janitors, led by my union local’s president, Mike Garcia.

Bring the Fight to the Heart of Hollywood

Janitor is not a glamorous job. Yet, in the middle of this struggle, janitors on strike outside the Paramount studies in Hollywood, led by a young Salvadorena named Marisol Rivera, actually became the fad of Hollywood, while in Mid-Wilshire, sex and gambling mogul Larry Flynt was refusing to allow scabs into his Hustler building and Geffen and Speilberg over at Dreamworks wanted to bring the janitors in house, rather than pay them through contractors. 

On Wilshire Boulevard itself, chilanga Blanca Perez had the strike line on lock. Salvadorena Vicky Marquez, a housekeeper to B Real of the rap group Cypress Hill and others, had Beverly Hills looking like a backyard barbeque at Norma Rae’s house. Downtown, many local leaders, including Rosa Ayala, Sandra Diaz, Kamilo Rivera and more even helped bring in Martin Barrera and Leonidas … and his band of “Alianza” reformers that had actually opposed Mike Garcia’s administration but set aside differences to unite union soldiers and rock the city center nightly in tense confrontations with the LAPD.

Many of these leaders were Salvadorian immigrants familiar with the fear of repression from experiences with the authoritarian regime of civil war-torn El Salvador; former guerrillas and sympathizers of the FMLN dominated the ranks of the union’s members, but there were also pro-government police and military vets, as well. United now in the American working class, they had come too far as refugees to simply accept poverty — again. Their impact on the strike and organization was immense. They were fearless, articulate, charismatic, and natural organizers. 

Our union brigada had been tasked with discouraging scabs from working as replacement workers. On this particular day, we were asked to go to Vermont Avenue to impede their hiring at the headquarters of the second-largest janitorial firm in the country at the time, OneSource Services. As we approached the offices we saw the line of applicants going out the door. I became nervous. Not because of the confrontation soon to come, but because these applicants looked like a rough crowd of street-wary Latino men and I have been told clearly to have no major incidents — especially during the day. 

But before I could put up my bugle to sound an alarm, the “Js”, as we called them, were out the door of the van: The mostly timid-looking mixture of male and female janitors hand-picked for their smarts and not their brawn were snatching job applications out of the hands of gang members and blocking the driveway. It was payday, and other janitors showing up for their check joined us, as did the LAPD. 

To see a visual timeline of the J4J movement in Los Angeles, click here.


One Salvadorian staff member, an early recruit from Northern California by Mike Garcia himself was incredible. In his mid-30s at the time and well built, Carlos Urrutia led our team with courage and bravery I had only seen in street wars of an earlier life of mine. Carlos damn near held the line alone, screaming, “¡No se muevan! ¡No se muevan!”  (“Don’t Move! Don’t Move!)

Carlos instructed me to take the lobby of the building. I was so in awe of his bravery I wanted to show mine. I just did it — but too fast. I took the door myself and was only followed by the LAPD who had just busted the jaw and cheekbone of a middle-aged Latina janitor with a vicious baton swing. Her face immediately swelled up dramatically. It literally looked like she had an apple attached to her cheek. She was barely conscious. To this day, it was the most violent and ruthless act I have ever seen by a cop. 

The cops took control and gave it to me. Carlos was carted off to jail and I was told I was hit dozens of times on my back with police batons, but I actually don’t remember that. To this day, I visit the chiropractor weekly as a result of that beating.

But as we regrouped to plan our next move, we realized we had actually been successful: The potential scabs took off and our team was feeling victorious. The full 15-passenger van was jubilant and already planning the next interruptions. They were not following or taking orders, they were as in charge as any of us were and it was awesome!

Put On Your Batteries

It was like the way Salvadorians speak was custom made for organizing; sayings like, ponte las pillas  — literally, “put on your batteries” — fit the moment remarkably. This was especially true at the infamous 444 S. Hope Street building that, ironically, was the scene of the intense lobby takeover in the feature film “Bread and Roses,” about the 1990 campaign, actually being filmed in and around us in the period leading up to the strike. 

Bread and Roses, a narrative feature film on the 1990 J4J strikes was being filmed before and during the 2000 campaign. Starring Pilar Padilla, Elpidia Carrillo and Adrien Brody, it was released that year, focusing on two sisters who work as cleaners in a downtown office building, and fight for the right to unionize.

Carlos was released just in time to join us outside. I had been asked to prepare nuisances for the visit. I distributed crunchy and soft dog food to spill, coffee thermoses with bleach to spill, and a team ready to set off the fire alarms. I thought I was clever, but the janitors knew better — I was the novice. They tore up every plant in the lobby, flipped over furniture, broke the front door entrance, set off the sprinklers, and chanted like you had never heard before. I remember a white man in a suit looking at us as his elevator door opened to the lobby in sheer and total amazement. I was so in awe of the moment it didn’t even bother me when an entire indoor tree that had been lobbed in the air hit me upside my head. It was the first time I ever saw the chant “No justice! No peace!” actually scare the shit out of people! 

The janitors would not be denied and it was the Salvadorian leaders who had previously risked their lives to try and topple a corrupt, US-backed dictatorship who saw this American labor-tactic stuff as a walk in the park. Mike and Triana Silton, our immediate boss, had known the janitors would fight. Until his death, one of Mike’s favorite stories was watching the janitors downtown squared off against the LAPD — and seeing the janitors emboldened and the cops scared. He would say, “That is when I knew where we were going to win.” 

Mike was himself no Central American refugee, and, before the 2000 strike, he was not even universally loved by the membership. But, by the middle of it, Mike Garcia was the unquestioned leader of the janitors and American labor was learning his favorite saying: “When we fight, we win.”

Militancy + Organization = Progress

But it was not just militancy that we had, we had organization. It is beyond comprehension how Reina Schmitz and her team of janitors, led by the late “Paquita,” the first openly gay janitor I knew of at the union, fed over 10,000 people two or three times a day. Likewise, Rosa Paredes and Gabriela Waitman handled the logistics of renting hundreds of vans and dozens of buses. Dave Stillwell and our lawyers kept people out of jail while Roxanne Rivera mobilized the politicos to engage the oligarch building owners to settle. 

Our organizers and “lost timed” (temporarily on staff) members rose to new heights, leading marches, crowds, strike lines, while also handling logistics, tactics, cops, angry drivers, cops, press, drama — did I mention the cops? — and more, all in a way that would make Tecumseh and Celia Sanchez proud. All this while our own Blanca Gallegos and her media team booked janitors live on news stations nationwide. Meanwhile, on loan and imported staff from sister unions and local LA unions took on logistical and support roles — the janitors were running this shit!

Public support was the main objective, and the narrative was clear and true: Poor, family-oriented, brown janitors and their faith versus the rich, powerful, white and male oligarchs and their money and power. Angelenos across the city of all walks and backgrounds routinely honked their horns and pulled over to enjoy our marches and clap in approval. Under that spotlight, even the LAPD wanted nothing to do with beating down or pushing janitors around. 

The media delivered incredible first-person accounts of the deplorable work and living conditions of the janitors contrasted with the vast wealth and elegant homes of the top executives of the commercial properties, as well as the high-rent properties themselves. We fed the media net worth and property value information that made the lords of business real estate seem like the assholes they are. I remember one janitor on TV saying that each night she cleaned the suite of a top executive whose personal bathroom was bigger than her family’s home.

The more the public heard, the more they supported the janitors. More than one reporter choked up when speaking to the children of the janitors who were so eloquent and committed. The janitors shared remarkable, horrible stories of their grit and despair in migration to escape violence, repression, war and poverty in Central America. Stories that just six years earlier, during the Prop. 187 hysteria, fell mostly on deaf ears. Suddenly the stories were tearjerkers. We were not just winning, we were beating the commercial real estate industry’s ass. The moment was magical.

Planning the Pilgrimage

That day in our staff meeting, planning the “pilgrimage” march from DTLA to Century City mentioned earlier, our Communications Director Blanca Gallegos brilliantly explained that pilgrimages are about sacrifice and our high level of public support would skyrocket. But Mike Garcia made sure we understood that unlike recent Latino and immigrant labor struggles, this pilgrimage would not showcase pain and suffering: “This March will show our power,” he proclaimed. 

We set the goal at 10,000 participants, counting strikers, and we got our assignments. The nation would soon see this remarkable strike led by a union that just 15 years earlier had completely fallen apart, as did almost all janitors locals outside of New York and Chicago.

The Service Employees International Union, launched in 1921 in Chicago, had been around in California for decades, built largely by organizers led by San Francisco Local 87 founder George Hardy, or the ‘Old Man’ as he was affectionately called. Hardy eventually moved to Washington, D.C. in 1971 to lead the national union as its seventh president, but only after some 40 years of organizing building service, healthcare and government workers up and down the state while fending off both anti-union officials and meddling mafia goons. Hardy even pushed then Gov. Ronald Reagan, today’s wet dream of the right, into giving California’s public workers collective bargaining rights. 

It was during this period Garcia met many workers Hardy had recruited to be union officials, like Viren Moret and Jimmy Duval — a character who always had three things: a wad of cash, a pistol, and an appetite. While Chicago and New York had mega-powerhouse unions, Hardy created small local affiliates by what seemed like the dozens; it almost seemed like a minor league baseball system. Together, the band of mostly Irish organizers would carry the union’s mantle from the Depression through WWII and the state’s post-war boom.


The Dark Age Begins

For a long time, until the early 1980s, being a union janitor in major California cities was a pretty good gig. Wages were actually higher than they are today, in real dollars, and a union janitor in LA back then had a strong retirement package, full family health insurance and job security. The same was true of union factories, auto and part plants, aerospace, big construction and more. LA was truly becoming a union town, and strikes and wins were common. 

According to Dave Stillwell, a former VP of SEIU Local 399 who ended his long career with SEIU Local 1877 as Mike Garcia’s right hand, most janitors eventually owned homes and had decent cars and lifestyles. Those janitors were mostly Black, Chicano and white. They lived in South LA, Lincoln Heights, East LA, and other working class parts of Los Angeles. In fact, the 1975 strike in Los Angeles by janitors was considered a landmark victory, securing decent wage increases, solid health and pension benefits, and work conditions janitors 25 years later would admire. Soon, though, the rich white guys who run real estate, among other things, did what they always do — attack!

Unfortunately, the good old Irish boys running building services unions in California not only failed to connect with many of the African American and growing number of Latino workers, but their rough and tumble tactics in dealing with employers no longer worked. According to Stillwell and Lerner, employers learned to tolerate them when it meant millions of dollars more in their pockets. The “old way” of dealing with employer abuse worked when the costs were relatively small, but with insurance and pension premiums rising, taking back family health care for thousands of workers was well worth the physical risk. Once employers started taking away benefits, the union locals, all of them, failed to develop a “new way” to fight back.

Meanwhile, SEIU saw bigger growth numbers in the public, nursing home, and health care sectors, and  soon shifted its focus to an impressive organizing drive that would take it from 400,000 members in the early ‘70s to over 2 million roughly three decades later. These divisions soon vastly outnumbered members of the cleaning and service crews. Luckily for janitors nationwide, however, the new organizing director at SEIU, Stephen Lerner, could not wait to get his hands on some janitorial organizing. Like Garica, Lerner and his band were looking for a fight. 

But back in Dreamville, CA, many janitorial union presidents gave concessions upon concessions hoping the bleeding would stop. The San Jose local even gave into varied wage rates, not just by area (common), nor by building (less common, but not unheard of) but by floors within a building (ridiculous). Soon building service locals in California were bleeding membership. Soon the 1% of the real estate class stepped up their war. SEIU stalwarts like Stern, Lerner, and Baratz were appalled and convinced the division needed new leadership in California.

Union Busting Tactics Pay Off for the Owning Class

My grandfather used to say, “Por algo tienen dinero” — they have money for something — when referring to rich fucks and how they made money and in 1982 the real estate industry made its formal move against humanity. Commercial real estate giants gathered with one another and invited major contractors such as Larry Smith of American Building Management (ABM), one of the larger union janitorial contractors in LA. Dave Stillwell snuck in and around the meeting as best he could to hear bits and pieces of the cabal planning. Real estate moguls like Terry Wachsner, Kennedy-Wilson, John Cushman, William Walters and Co, Pacific Mutual, Dave Wilstein, and Prudential were involved. Soon enough, the commercial real estate industry would copy the auto industry and other industrial factories that once helped build Southern California’s working class but by the late ‘70s was crushing unions and shutting down factories. 

The union-busting plan was simple: The industry would begin to cancel contracts with union janitorial firms and replace them with nonunion, newly formed contractors. In most cases, only the uniforms of management would change as the new company retained the same supervisors, work sites and big shots as its previous incarnation. The only difference would be all the new jobs would be nonunion, at minimum wage, with dramatically increased workloads, no benefits and, most disgustingly, the jobs would be given specifically to desperate Central American and rural Mexican immigrants who they likely believed would be more compliant. 

A few at SEIU, including the legendary George Hardy, took note of the changes. But the collection of California locals fought back poorly, if at all; tiny and disparate, they were in no position to pull in the same direction and fight back. Soon enough, African American, Asian American and white janitors looked for opportunities in government, schools, and other institutions with better pay, benefits and security. By 1990, almost all private building janitors in LA were immigrants. Soon, the number of decently paid unionized janitors with benefits dwindled to about 1200, or 10 percent of its highest membership number.

In each of these jobs, the commercial real estate owners pocketed tens of thousands of dollars by no longer having the “burden” of providing decent wages, health care, retirement and other benefits. Now multiply that by 10,000 janitors and you can almost see the bonuses flying around the top floors of corporate Los Angeles. Hell, the smart ones even became Democrats and started buddying up to the emerging diverse city leadership. 

The hustle was even better for the firms that decided the new arrivals did not need overtime, minimum wage or safety standards, and, in some cases, simply paid salaries in cash under the table to add Uncle Sam to the list of those ripped off. Soon, janitorial services would join the axis of evil of exploitive industries — alongside agriculture and garment — as California’s largest wage ripper-offers.

Coming Full Circle

The janitorial industry had come full circle. After years of marches, the successful 1975 LA Strike, and decades of worker activism, all those victories were gone in less than a decade. If it were not for the visible hand of the greedy white lords of the commercial industry, one could call this a perfect storm. But this was by no means a natural event. It was what Damon Wayans called a conspiracy, a C-O-N-spiracy. This is the background into which enters the dragon from the San Fernando Valley — Mr. Mike Garcia, with a chant that would become his calling card: “When we fight we win.”

The birth of the “Justice for Janitors” (J4J) movement is a tale that varies depending on who you with SEIU you speak with. Jono Shaffer speaks of it more as a classic class struggle where workers stepped up to fight. Mark Gomez sees it more as a collection of various strategies, a bunch of hard workers, and the right crop of workers with which to push back. Stillwell and others saw it as an outcome of better use of communications and more resources. But one thing is evident: The locals became more militant, less reliant on the government to intervene, and, most of all, decided to bypass the bullshit passing of the buck from owners to property managers to contractors.

Justice for Janitors is a strategic approach to organizing. It researches the players and condition of the industry so, for once, the union knows more about what is going on than the bosses. Grassroots leaders with charisma and bravery like Rocia Seanz and others were empowered and hired. And entire new job duties for organizers showed a level of sophistication that nearly every union in America now emulates. Researchers, media relations advisors, political operatives, community organizers, and coordinated labor bodies were brought into the fight. Contracts were lined up to end at the same time so expirations would give at least the notion that a united national group of janitors would storm the czar’s palace. First in Pittsburg in 1985 and later in Denver, where Mike would first lead a local janitors union, the movement had a formula — it just needed to bake a bit more and be put to the test in the way imagined by the forefathers.

Solutions Come from Conflict

Our direct boss, Triana Silton, was the perfect tactician for the Justice for Janitors model test of a strike. Jono Shaffer, Jon Barton, Bill Reagan, Rocio Seanz and others had shown the new organizing strategy could work for organizing new janitors, yet building a worker-led strike had still not come out of J4J. Oddly, I recently learned Triana was not too connected to the D.C. cabal, and in fact only met the Papa Smurf of it all, Stephen Lerner, during the strike. But she embodied the spirit like no one else. Triana took over that pilgrimage meeting as Mike went off to do president things. Triana, as she always did, left not one detail out. We each got our assignments and Triana pushed us out the door. “Alright, let’s do this,” she said to close the meeting. 

As impressive as Silton was, it was what Lerner described as Garcia’s “fearlessness” that made this moment as much as anything.  As Mike would say to me many times over, “Solutions come from conflict” — and Mike was definitely cool with conflict. In fact, he thrived on it. But it was also Garica’s methodical and patient consolidation of the janitors locals across California that made this fight even possible. And as I have also recently come to appreciate, it was SEIU’s intolerance for pale leadership and corruption that gave them the willingness and boldness to remove officers from local unions and replace them with competent trustees, even if from the outside. In California, it was a series of consolidations and removals that set the stage for Mike Garcia to become the unquestioned leader of janitors in California. 

Garcia was a burly man who apparently looked good with his shirt off. At least his wife Gloria thought so. He had a pinta-like brocha that would make his Valley mate El machete’s ‘stache look like peach fuzz. Mike’s status made you think he was much taller the 5-foot, 8-inches he stood. He dressed like an undercover cop — no creativity! If he had a fancy meeting, some khaki slacks and a solid longsleeve dress shirt — just so nobody says notin’. Mike combed his hair with a small black cholo comb just like the one I had; $.99, fits in your pocket, put in your palm, middle finger in the hole, and orale — comb that shit back! If Mike had used Three Flowers hair balm of cholos we would have jumped him into the old neighborhood.

Mike Garcia brought his organizing skills to LA from the SF Bay Area in the mid-90s.

Mike was like a second father to many of us, especially the Chicanos. He was a great listener, asked about our past, our families, and when he asked how you were doing — he really meant it. He had capable protectors and sharp staff, including Silton, one of the hardest workers I ever met. But once you got in the circle, Mike always made time for you, largely because he sacrificed time with his own family. 

He was born in East Los Angeles, right smack in the middle of the Chicano political revolution, but his family soon moved to the suburban middle-class suburban community of Tarzana. Mike’s father had a good factory job and the family lived fairly well. Typical of the Chicano children of the ‘70s, Garcia spoke limited Spanish at home, but in the streets he could order food with the best of them and he understood most of the jokes. 

The Valley was a community that largely escaped the desmadre (hustle and bustle) of the eastside Mexicanos. After high school, Mike attended local colleges and was already an activist and was mentored by the legendary Chicano studies professor Rudy Acuna. But it was at San Jose State University (SJSU) in Northern California that Mike made the personal and professional relationships that would shape his career and life: his wife Gloria, and SEIU dawgs Michael Baratz, Andy Stern, and Max Richardson. 

While at SJSU, Garcia joined el movimiento. Garcia may or may not have been a member of the San Jose Brown Berets, but in any case he got to know some of the Bay Area’s top lefties, including Tom “el Tigre Blanco” Csecky and Salvador “Chava” Bustamante, and my baton partner Carlos Urrutia, who would become lifelong friends of Garcia and senior officials at what would become SEIU Local 1877. 

It was also at San Jose that Garcia took a part time job as a janitor, or porter as they were called then. It was a good union job with benefits. It is unclear how much Garcia organically became a union member and how much of it was his purposeful entree into the movement. Regardless, soon enough the broom in Garcia’s hands became his destiny. 

Around this time, SEIU had finally decided against abandoning organizing janitors as many had proposed. Instead they decided to fight back, and Mike Garcia would be front and center in bringing in the fight. Up until the 1980s, most SEIU locals negotiated and fought their employers mostly independent of one another. Buildings services unions in California were like uniform numbers on minor league baseball players at big league spring training — they made no sense: #77 in San Jose, #81 in San Mateo, #87 in San Francisco, #22, #14, and #22 … you get the picture. But amidst this chaos, Mike Garcia teamed up with Michael Baratz, Andy Stern, SEIU President John Sweeney, Eliseo Medina, and Stephen Lerner to dream of one powerful little janitor’s union in California that could become the little engine that would. 

Building a Super Team

Enter the dragon, Mike Garcia. Garcia first joined SEIU Local 77 in San Jose thanks to longtime union leader Susan Sachen. He bounced around the state with his proverbial stick and red handkerchief, traveling around bringin’ in da union to janitors worldwide, or at least across California. Mike did not fit perfectly among the white powers that were in the building services division. Mike was an awkward square fitting just enough into a variety of circles . . . but they fit one another just enough. Mike’s education surely helped him with the growing intellectualization of SEIU, and his brown face, choppy Spanish and gusto made him a good enough fit for the janitors. 

J4J T-shirt.

Soon Mike had a reputation as a hard charging organizer who the workers seemed to like. “A future here he has,” would have said Yoda — I think. Mike took over the union in Denver, where he and Mike Wilzoch and other hardchargers showed how powerful the David versus Goliath story of the janitors really was. The “thing” had legs and needed the wings to expand. Mike would soon lead the charge to unify California janitors and take on some of the richest, most privileged men in the world — and Mike would not bat an eyelash and would hit harder than a 19-year-old Mike Tyson.

Mike soon met other organizers, researchers and strategists in San Diego, Washington, Chicago, New York, and Denver, Co. He met established SEIU stalwarts like Tom Balonoff in Chicago, Mike Fishman in NewYork and his protector slash concierge, Baratz. Mike also brought in some of his own Latino left flavor in Bustamante, Csecky, and Urrutia. Chava had been a young leader in the United Farm Workers and his brother was a contemporary of Cesar Chavez. Tom was a Hungarian immigrant turned radical Bay Area lefty booted out of the Navy for trying to unionize. Csecky was a solid member of the grunt working class and lefty Bay Area circles. And Carlos was a young Salvadorian lefty with close ties to FMLN solidarity circles.  

In Los Angeles, the Justice for Janitors clan, as it had become known, would meet credible and fiery worker leaders like Rocio Seanz, Jovita Ramirez, Cesar Oliva, Berthay Nortey, Ben Monterroso and others who became solid worksite leaders, and many were hired as staff. These passionate leaders were not just boots on the ground — for the J4J movement, they were boots-in-your-face warriors for justice. Headquarters in D.C. hypothesized about aggressive new and “comprehensive” tactics as Lerner and his clan tossed out the long and virtually impossible “rules” set up by the National Labor Relations Board that favors employers in long and drawn out elections where the boss has all the leverage with threats of retaliation and candy for cooperation.

Justice for Janitors instead pushed a vision of a more militant and intelligent union. A powerful new model led by the janitors who cleaned by night and marched for better wages by day. The marches escalated, and the tactics infuriated property managers.

Justice for Janitors instead pushed a vision of a more militant and intelligent union. A powerful new model led by the janitors who cleaned by night and marched for better wages by day. The marches escalated, and the tactics infuriated property managers. This included interrupting food courts during lunch and seeking solidarity and support directly from tenants. SEIU staff questioned the property values across the industry, essentially accusing them of being property tax evaders. Researchers identified union pension funds with large investments in commercial buildings, with an eye to investment, and engaged with local politicians to stand with the janitors. 

Every avenue to challenge the owners was pursued. We questioned the number of parking spaces a building was required to have and even sought injunctions against modifications and expansions. Wage-and-hour claims with the labor commission began to be filled against the janitorial subcontractors, and any and all negative stories about the industry were “pitched” to the local press by a new crop of “communications directors.” Tenants were asked to support our efforts, and in some cases formed solidarity bodies and encouraged the owners to settle with the janitors. A David and Goliath storyline was emerging — and in Los Angeles in particular, David was scrappy as fuck!

It was a wonderful and terrible and magical mix of fiery worker leadership, grotesque discrimination, exploitation and segregation of immigrant neighborhoods, worksite conditions worthy of a rewrite of “Das Capital,” and smart and strategic white middle-class lefties dedicated to proving to dad that capitalism sucks. It was a model that did not just work, it empowered and emboldened workers and left a legacy of highly talented and sought after cadre of J4J organizers that have since spread across the labor landscape. 

What Has Been Left Out of the Story

Unfortunately, in telling this story, there are three main variables left out by the labor and press scribes; the courage and bravery of Mike Garcia, the rebellious clan of janitors, and Mike’s empowerment of his staff and leadership. 

For one, as mentioned earlier, the janitors were by the 1990s mostly rural southern Mexican or Central Americans who knew more about Che, Sandino, Marti,  Zapata, and Fidel than they knew about Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta. And, of course, the chilangos you can never get rid of. In fact, many of the janitors had been guerrillas or were sympathizers of the FMLN, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or rural Guatemalan and Mexican social movements. Even more had experience in a variety of mutual aid organizations and social movements. For some, this experience was direct, and for the younger ones it was watching their parents and family involved in fighting for better days. 

While they may have struggled to describe their politics, the janitors could easily and eloquently describe the abuses of the rich and powerful and the basic necessities of life that should be afforded universally. The janitors dreamed of a more free, prosperous and democratic life. To say it in American talk — they supported programs and ideas inspired by the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary struggles that engulfed their hometowns in Southern Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Except now, they did not fear being killed and were sick and tired of being treated like shit — by the press, by politicians, by landlords, bus drivers, cops, and, yes — their bosses. For me, it was the first job I had where many people, not just a few, knew who Silvio Rodriguez was. It was fuckin’ cool!

Salvadoran immigrants in California were especially pivotal in building the movement, but they also contributed to J4J efforts elsewhere. Pictured here: Striking suburban janitors of the Service Employees International Union at a mass rally in Oak Brook, Illinois, April, 25, 2000.

Secondly, President Mike Garcia embraced the militancy and added union strategy, political and community solidarity, and press savvy. Instead of building public persona and individual power, he instead wanted to prove workers could fight and win a path to a better life through union militancy. Mike not only wanted to win a good contract, but to also make a statement for all immigrant workers in America: He did not just want to win the strike — he wanted to beat the shit out of the building owners. But Mike also wanted the janitors themselves to do the ass-whooping! The industry would have to pay for what it did to the working class in LA, and other union leaders needed to learn, “When we fight, we win.”

It was perfect timing for the young Garcia. Mike was just a couple generations after the Sixties revolution and a generation after the UFW would teach Chicano activists the Sí, se puede (“Yes, we can”) magical dust that was spreading to hyper-exploited Latino workers across the nation. This was also a time when young, radical left organizers took jobs at the rebuilding janitors unions (and others) with a new vigor to fight and win. Combined with the politically radical refugees from Central America and rural Mexico, it was a recipe for revolution, and Garcia saw it clear as day. 

There was also an expectation that Los Angeles’ political landscape was beginning to be influenced by an avalanche of newly formed nonprofit, religious, and community organizations, as well as by a diverse new democratic political leadership. Those lefties stood with the janitors and built religious, immigrant advocacy, faculty and student-based support for the marches, delegations and press events. By 2000, the consolidated union that appointed Garcia the new Czar was the little engine that could and so the strike was not just another contract dispute, it was our own little left-wing conspiracy to win a solid day of pay for a solid day of work.

Last of the Labor Mohicans

Tragically, the countless hours away from his family, traveling, organizing, attending marches and political rallies and picket lines, had taken its toll on Garcia’s health. A tough battle with diabetes was mounting as other ailments began to add up. On March 25, 2017, at the age of 65, Mike Garcia passed away at his daughter’s home. Losing him was what I consider losing the last of the labor Mohicans. But the real loss in losing Mike was for his family: His wife, Gloria, son and two daughters, several grandchildren… 

Mike’s wife Gloria, the Oxnard homegirl, was easily a 2-1 favorite to whoop Mike’s ass if she needed to. Gloria had a son from a previous relationship who was soon Mike’s BFF, at least when the Raiders or Dodgers were on TV. The family had a beautiful home in Sylmar he invited us over to on occasions. The family loved each other’s company when Mike was home. Unfortunately, that was not often. Even before becoming the president of Local 1877, Mike had been a work-a-holic — with travel. Their relationship strained at times, with being home proving to be a tough task for Garcia. But they had immense love for one another. Watching the two interact, you could tell the two had been through hell and back — and they liked back better. 

Liberation as Preoccupation, Not an Occupation

Working at J4J was not just an occupation, but as Paulo Frieire notes, liberation must also be a preoccupation. It was an identity, a movement, a family, and, only lastly, a union. Mike was our father in Local 1877 and he deserves as much praise for the examples and movement he led. Mike sent me to be a regular trainer at AFL-CIO “three-day trainings” run by his old boss who first hired him, Susan Sachen. Mike put me on the national Building Service Steering Committee and even made me the Orange County vice president and on the board of the Orange County Labor Federation. When I became the political director, I was known as “Mike’s guy.” These were not perks, they were assignments to move the cause forward and he checked in with me on all of it. SEIU President Andy Stern would give Mike books to read, which he had me read and report to him on. 

I was afforded every opportunity to grow. I was totally shortsighted and selfish. I wanted to be “a grassroots guy” that could chop it up intellectually with the best and organize like second nature. Truth is, though, I did not want to put in the insider busy work of representing thousands of workers on the job site or in politics with the international or local federations. Because I was not there to see the problems of complacency Mike had put to rest, I took the union formula for support for granted. Mike did not. Mike saw the work inside the union, in International union politics, and more as essential fighting for the resources and support needed to win. 

Those leaders I often took for granted at headquarters, like Stephen Lerner, Andy Stern and Michael Baratz, own the J4J creation as much as anyone by setting the table for the locals, training staff, and empowering a new diverse leadership like Mike. For me, I wondered why Mike took so much shit from them in the form of requests and obligations consuming his time and energy, at times. But Mike saw the big picture, the brainiacs were some of the best people on our team — even if at times they can’t stand each other. “Keep them all working,” Mike used to say to me. It was part of the valuable recipe for victory. 

Garcia believed in us, even when we did not deserve it. One could argue he had no choice — we were the ragtag cabrones he had. But he rarely complained about who was on his team — he just wanted everyone to do their best. Mike may not be revered like George Hardy or Wobblies founder Big Bill Haywood. He may not have been Farabundo Martí or César Augusto Sandino. But in 2000 in LA, Mike Garcia was a giant with the guts to take on the most powerful elite of LA. And he gave this young hot-headed Chicano with a chip on his shoulders the most powerful things one could have: confidence, support, and love. 

¡Que viva Mike Garcia!

Javier Gonzalez
Javier Gonzalez

Javier Gonzalez is a political consultant in LA. He is a former labor organizer and leader. He got his start as a community and youth activist involved in the Black and Latino unity and gang truce movement on the West Side. Javier served as western states deputy field director for the Bernie 2016 campaign. He can be reached at javgonz@mac.com or via Twitter @javgonz

Copyright 2020 Javier Gonzalez

8 comments

  1. No question, we maintain our war on our former “working brothers and sisters” — all those phased out of the job market, as US job losses had long su4passd job gains. “Solidarity For…” well, for as long as you still have your job.

  2. Very awesome, important write-up, JG, overview of movement & Garcia organizing legacy. I went to the big 1991 Century City rally after the LAPD beatings, saw the tide turn. Dig the front row view… and humanity side of the struggle. Sandino, Berta Caseres & Mike Garcia presente!

  3. Thank you for adding insight to a groundbreaking struggle for justice and Mike’s legacy. Everyone built something special and without equal. It changed Lives and LA forever!

  4. too long American Unions dismissed their poorer relations in the essential but “low skilled” jobs.
    Unions too, suffer middle class snobbery

  5. I was on a union organizing committee 20 years ago. Our employer was plugged into the local power structure and so we got no support from existing unions. Funny how that works.

    Just one criticism of this excellent article. Immigrants go to El Norte because historically their countries have been turned into US corporate fiefdoms by military juntas trained at the School of the Americas in Georgia. Where is the analysis of the horrors that create so much immigration? If there was a focus on root causes, on turning those countries into places where people would want to live and raise families, perhaps many people would choose to remain in their home countries.

  6. It’s very difficult to understand what victory means from this article. A $1 per hour raise? Really? Do janitors have any idea how much other “workers” get paid in tech or defense or healthcare? It does matter but there’s no discussion of this at all. Do people want to be janitors? There’s nothing wrong with that of course but the question isn’t asked.

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