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Class struggle in every high rise

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Issue 1745

MIKE DAVIS writes on the real events behind Ken Loach’s new film

Class struggle in every high rise

THE FIGHT for justice by low paid workers is the plot of socialist film-maker Ken Loach’s new movie Bread and Roses. It follows a real life strike by janitors who clean the offices of giant corporations in Los Angeles in the US. The workers are some of the most downtrodden in society. Most are women, all are immigrants. Their battle has inspired other workers to fight for decent pay and conditions. More workers are joining trade unions and taking on bosses who have long viewed Los Angeles as an “anti-union town”.

MIKE DAVIS is a US socialist and writer. Among his books are City of Quartz and Magical Urbanism, which deal with social conditions and the labour movement in Los Angeles. He writes here for Socialist Worker on the real events that form the background to Bread and Roses.

IN 1990, two years before the firestorm of the Rodney King riots, a group of minimum wage janitors, mostly immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador, attempted to march legally through the Century City district of Los Angeles. A small forest of 1960s-era skyscrapers on a dramatic knoll just west of Beverly Hills 90210, Century City is “downtown” to the American entertainment industry. Here, in mahogany-panelled offices and garish suites, movie stars cry over their careers to their agents and plot lawsuits with thousand dollar an hour attorneys.

Power and money ooze from polished marble, yet the janitors who were working per hour for less than the cost of a cheap martini were rebuffed in every attempt to negotiate a wage increase or medical insurance. Commuting by bus from Downtown and Eastside tenement barrios, they laboured long hours only to end up too broke on payday to afford a doctor’s visit or their daughter’s communion dress.

“Si, se puede!” (“Yes, we can do it!”) Chanting the old slogan of Cesar Chavez’s farm workers, 400 or so members of Justice for Janitors, sponsored by Service Employees International Union, set off from a small park on the Beverly Hills border of Century City. Their intention was to demonstrate the unity and determined spirit of the organising campaign.

A handful of relaxed Beverly Hills police yawned or smiled amicably as the marchers, armed with a legal permit to demonstrate in Century City, headed up a short hill to the Los Angeles city limits. At the crest of the hill, however, the marchers were unexpectedly confronted by a menacing wall of Los Angeles police in riot gear.

When organisers showed their parade permit they were brusquely ordered to turn around and disperse. Confident in their legal right to demonstrate, the janitors refused to retreat. Some of them linked arms-others sat down in the street.

Without warning or provocation the police charged. The sickening sound of riot batons smashing into heads and shoulders echoed between skyscrapers. The dozens of appalling injuries (prefiguring the ferocity of the later police beating of Rodney King) included a fractured skull and a miscarriage. Standing over injured janitors, the young cops exulted in their first blood, slapping hands and flashing “high fives” like a victorious basketball team.

NO ONE who was there that day (I was arrested, ironically, for shouting, “Tiananmen Square! Tiananmen Square!”) will ever forget the obscenity of the LAPD’s celebration. Yet the infamous Century City “police riot” quickly turned into a strategic victory for the janitors. Faced with indisputable video evidence of LAPD mayhem (which would eventually cost the department several million dollars in damages), liberal members of the city council began to openly side with the janitors. Embarrassed by blue fascism on their own doorstep, some of Century City’s most prominent tenants urged their landlords to recognise the union. Most importantly, the janitors showed their redoubled courage and determination by continuing militant, noisy protests in defiance of the LAPD.

In the end Justice for Janitors not only won a contract but also established a bold new template for organising Los Angeles’s huge low wage Latino working class. Century City was the first victory in what one veteran organiser-evoking the memory of the great rebellion of New York City’s new immigrants in 1910-11-has aptly called “the Uprising of the Million”.

Creatively alloying civil rights era tactics like sit-ins and marches with traditional strikes and picket lines, labour in Los Angeles is once again becoming a movement after decades of debilitating redbaiting, inter-union rivalry and bureaucratic ossification. In some cases, notably the janitors, hotel workers, longshore workers and electrical workers, this renaissance has gone hand in hand with the consolidation of progressive local union leaderships.

In other cases, like the astonishingly bold strike of Mexican “drywall” construction workers in the mid-1990s, immigrants have had to create their own instruments of struggle with minimal support from unions. Rank and file militancy-often reinforced by the radical traditions that workers bring with them from Mexico and Central America-is a response to the growing income gap between Latino immigrants and other groups.

The median household income of 30 million US Latinos fell by nearly $3,000 between 1989 and 1996-the biggest loss registered by any ethnic group since the Depression. And in Los Angeles, despite the now faltering “New Economy” boom, poverty levels in Latino neighborhoods were significantly higher in 1999 (22 percent) than in 1990 (15 percent).

The struggles of janitors and hotel workers in particular have become potent symbols of Latino working class determination to break the shackles of this new industrial peonage. Every high rise office building and hotel on the LA skyline is now a site of class struggle.

Last April, after years of preparation, Justice for Janitors launched a city-wide strike against the below poverty line wages being offered by billionaire building owners. For three weeks thousands of janitors and their supporters took to the streets in a ceaseless carnival of noisy, drum banging marches and guerrilla actions. A majority of the strikers, moreover, were women, prompting pro-labour city councilwoman Jackie Goldberg to annoint the janitors as “the new women’s movement” for the millennium.

Threats and arrests were no deterrent to the veterans of Century City, and trade union solidarity was probably at the highest level since the 1940s. And, thanks to superb strike coverage in the leftish LA Weekly, the janitors garnered unprecedented support from white collar workers and sympathetic Anglo liberals.

The once “impossible” crusade of the janitors ended in a stunning victory. Although the 70 cent per hour wage increase was only a small step towards a truly “living wage”, the janitors’ success, as the Weekly pointed out, “remade Los Angeles”. That is to say it has reshaped the balance of power between workers and capital, giving a million immigrants a new confidence in their power and destiny as a class. This hard-won experience will be all the more important as Los Angeles workers fight to weather the new recession now officially forecast to lie ahead.

‘Invisible’ rebellion

By Helen Shooter

KEN LOACH’S Bread and Roses brings the janitors’ struggle powerfully to life. The central character, Maya, is one of the many immigrant workers who illegally cross the Mexican border to find a better life in the US. Instead of the “American dream” she finds people ready to exploit the vulnerable position female immigrants are in.

Loach shows how the workers’ confidence starts to grow when they join the union and demand better. Some of the funniest parts of the film are when these “invisible” people begin to challenge the rich and powerful whose offices they clean.

Loach says the film “pointed up politicians’ hypocrisy towards immigrants and asylum seekers who are being used and abused for cheap labour on both sides of the Atlantic, and treated as if they are a blot on the landscape”. Bread and Roses shows how such workers can stand up against exploitation, racism and sexism, and is a boost to workers everywhere.

Why ‘Bread and Roses’?

THE PHRASE “bread and roses” became famous after it appeared on a banner during a strike by mainly women textile workers in the US town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912.

Lawrence then housed the world’s biggest textile factory. The bosses employed immigrant workers from many different nationalities on a pittance. Those workers rose up together in January 1912 after the bosses speeded up the looms and cut wages.

Some 23,000 people fought poverty and the brutality of the National Guard for two months. They demanded bread-that their basic needs were met with decent pay. But they wanted roses-respect, and an end to the discrimination and sexism. Women workers led the strike, and union meetings were translated into 25 languages.

Supporters like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a leading figure in the US socialist organisation the IWW, raised solidarity for the strike. The strikers won a 25 percent rise for the lowest paid workers, higher overtime rates and strikers to get their jobs back without discrimination. James Oppenheim, an IWW member, popularised their slogan in a song to commemorate the strike:

“Look up the sky is burning/With blood that workers shed/And we’ll carry on the battle/For roses and bread.”

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