tWorkers At the Center Lisa Hoyos reports on a campaign to organize a mainly immigrant workforce in Silicon Valley using the innovative Justice for Janitors organizing model. Estanislao lives with his wife and eight children in a one bedroom apartment on the East Side of San Jose, California. Working full-time for the past four years for a Silicon Valley landscape contractor, he makes $4.75 and hour with no health benefits. After taxes, Estanislao brings home $720 a month. The rent is $610. With $400 a month of government assistance, the family has approximately $500 a month, or $50 per person, for food, clothes, medicine, and bills. Extras like a telephone or family car are far out of reach. As Estanislao's wife told me on a recent visit to their apartment, "Food never lasts through the month. Without the groceries the church gives us, we couldn't make it." Estanislao is one of several thousand San Jose area landscape workers working full-time and living in poverty. He is one of thousands now being targeted by an organizing drive of the Campaign for Justice of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 1877. The Campaign is an outgrowth of SEIU's Justice for Janitors, which has organized 20,000 janitors over the past eight years. Over the past eight years SEIU has organized more unorganized workers than any other union in the country, 35 percent through Justice for Janitors. ORGANIZING MODEL The Campaign for Justice seeks to demonstrate that the Justice for Janitors organizing model can be successful in other industries. The long-term objective is the development of a multi-union project which will organize low-wage workers in both the service and manufacturing sectors of Silicon Valley. Currently the Campaign's focus is limited to the landscape industry, which like janitorial, is characterized by an exploitative system of contracting out. The Campaign for Justice strategy attacks the entire basis of contracting out, which is to maximize "efficiency" (read: dollars) by promoting a low-bid system that guts the livelihood of workers. Client-companies use the low-bid scheme to set wage standards for entire industries; the message to contractors is: "We don't care how you get the job done, just get it done." As a result, violation of federal wage and hour laws, payment of poverty level wages, and denial of workers' healthcare become industry-standards. By necessity, the Justice Campaign's organizing efforts are focused not only on the contractors directly employing landscapers, but also on the client companies which profit from the low-bid system. In both the private and public sector, contracting-out is an explosive trend. The practice is a direct assault on organized labor and workers' livelihoods -- one which demands a strategic response. Both Justice for Janitors and the Campaign for Justice are crafting that response with low-wage immigrant workers in the private-sector. While there are some differences between the landscape and janitorial industries -- for example, the proportion of women workers is much higher in janitorial -- the applicability of the Justice for Janitors organizing model to our Campaign is broad. Following are the main points of the models' overlapping elements. Organizing the immigrant workforce with workers at the center. In order for labor to grow in both numbers and political relevance, and in order to improve the conditions of some of the most mistreated workers in the U.S. work- force, it is necessary to organize immigrant workers. The low-wage service sector is the fastest job-growth category in the country. In California, these jobs are held predominantly by Latino and Asian immigrants earning poverty level wages with no benefits. These workers have tremendous potential for struggle and self-organization, and their own direct activity needs to be at the heart of organizing efforts. Moreover, these efforts need to deal directly and forthrightly with the linguistic and cultural challenges of organizing such a diverse workforce. Pushing for industry-wide master agreements. If the Campaign were to organize the plethora of non-union contractors shop by shop, it could not achieve strong bargaining power -- because unionized companies would be competing in a non-union market. Thus a two-tiered process for getting union recognition has been developed. The objective is to get targeted contractors to sign an "interim agreement" specifying that when over 50 percent of the industry leaders have signed, the contractor will enter into the collective process to establish an industry-wide master-agreement. Companies which sign the interim agreement also agree to obey labor laws. The advantage of this system is that companies which sign the interim agreement will not be outbid by the non-union competition during the period before the industry-wide master contract is negotiated. After negotiation of the contract, key contractors in the industry will become union simultaneously, and will have sufficient pull within the market to demand more money from corporate clients. Targeting employers based on power structure research. Within the area of research, the Campaign's objective is to investigate all possible points of leverage which can be used against the industry. This entails gathering a tremendous amount of information. Research must discover which contractors drive the industry, which clients are the most prominent and vulnerable, what is the agenda of the trade associations, what is the nature of any industry legislative agenda, which regulatory agencies govern the industry, what possibilities exist for stockholder activism and so on. Industry research directly informs the strategy of the Campaign. Pushing the boundaries of pro-corporate labor law. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 says that unions cannot hold companies which are not direct employers liable for the conditions of the workers. In essence, it enables companies to use sweatshop labor through a middle-employer. By holding clients morally accountable where labor law protects them from legal responsibility, Justice for Janitors and the Campaign for Justice work around the legal constraints which were specifically designed as obstacles to organizing. Dumping the NLRB election process. Simply speaking, National Labor Relations Board elections are held on the turf of the employer (and union-busting law-firms), and they are governed by the corporate-leaning NLRB. The union loses roughly half the elections that are held. Even after NLRB election victories, collective bargaining agreements between the union and the employer follow only half the time. Thus, only 25 percent of workers who file for an election ever see unionization come to fruition. Integrating the community into the struggle. The Campaign for Justice has both a community coalition and a religious-based coalition composed of activist supporters. Both coalitions broaden the political scope of the Campaign and help the general public to see the struggle of workers to organize themselves as a social and economic justice issue, not simply a labor issue. FIGHTING CONTRACTORS AND CLIENTS The principal clients of the landscape contractors are high-tech firms, shopping centers, housing complexes, property managers, etc. While there are over 100 landscape contractors in the Silicon Valley, organizing approximately 22 of the most powerful contractors would give the Campaign "industry dominance": union rather than non-union shops would become the industry standard. When a critical mass of key client companies hire only union contractors, it can actually create an incentive for non-union contractors to become union. The Campaign's tactical goal is to demonstrate to clients and contractors that there is a cost in image, accounts or patronage for denying workers a union. The challenge is to show the true nature of contracting out. For example, the Campaign sheds light on the fact that contracting out is a form of public subsidy to private corporations; for example, when the companies fail to ensure workers' health care, the cost is passed on to an overloaded public sector. The Campaign works to raise public awareness of the hardships faced by low-wage workers who provide services to wealthy client companies. These efforts can have significant impact. When Apple computer insisted on keeping its janitorial contract with an abusive non-union contractor, Justice for Janitors initiated a high-visibility campaign which exposed the horrible working conditions of the "urban farmworkers" who cleaned their buildings. The campaign culminated in a three-week hunger strike in front of Apple's corporate headquarters. With support from C‚sar Ch vez, Dolores Huerta, and hundreds of community members, the strike became a public relations nightmare for Apple. The company finally agreed to hire only union janitorial contractors. After this episode, several other high-tech client companies either voluntarily or with little resistance agreed to hire union janitorial contractors. In relation to the contractors, the Campaign strategy is to convince them that it is easier and less expensive to settle with the union than to fight. Organizers educate workers about their rights on the job -- and then file charges with the Labor Board for contractor violations of worker health and safety codes and federal wage and hour laws. This can result in tens of thousands of dollars in fines for contractors. Public attention is focused on abusive policies and practices of contractors through demonstrations, leaflets distributed to a client's employees and patrons, introducing motions at client stockholder meetings, providing information to the media, sending delegations of religious and community leaders to speak with company officials, and organizing letter-writing drives. Stephen Lerner, former Organizing Director of the SEIU Building Services Division and principal architect of the Justice for Janitors organizing model, says, "the union begins `acting like a union' even before it is recognized -- and begins to assert power over the employer." Of course contractors and client companies fight back. They hire union-busting law firms. They video-tape demonstrations. They threaten and fire workers for union activity, despite the fact that this is illegal. Shortly after the Campaign began organizing, a group of prominent landscape contractors began meeting regularly to develop a plan to defeat the union. Such concerted resistance pushes the Campaign to carefully select its priority targets. Beating a contractor which is a leader in the industry can have a chilling-effect on the anti-union efforts of others. The fact that industry leaders (in both the client and contractor arenas) communicate with each other also means that victories resonate across the industry. When contractors spend thousands of dollars fighting and still lose, others become reluctant to fight -- and the union proceeds more quickly toward its goal of industry dominance. WORKERS AT THE CENTER The Campaign's ability to unionize a non-union industry depends almost entirely on the development of a movement with a mass character. Strategic targeting of companies lays the ground work, but it is the force of workers and community supporters on the ground that ultimately brings victories. To maintain grassroots momentum, the Campaign has held one or two demonstrations each week over the last six months, in addition to smaller actions such as worker/community delegations to companies and leafleting of clients. Maintaining this level of activity requires consistent participation of workers from all the companies that the Campaign is organizing. That means the Campaign must provide workers and community supporters with an overview of all the components of the industry-wide organizing model. By design, the model requires solidarity of workers across companies. Because of the two-tiered process of securing a collective bargaining agreement (interim recognition followed by an industry-wide master contract), no one wins until everybody wins. Currently, the Campaign is organizing workers in six landscape companies. While any given action will focus pressure on the employer of one group of workers, the workers from the other five companies must understand the value of and participate in that action as if it were focused on their own employer. If the number of workers at demonstrations drops off, so will the Campaign's ability to impact its targets. Campaign organizers focus a great deal of attention on building leadership among the workers within the companies they are organizing. It is the workers who are on the job every day, countering the anti-union tactics of the boss and encouraging other workers to keep coming to demonstrations week after week. In each company there is a leadership committee in addition to a general worker committee. There is also an industry-wide leadership council which includes leaders within each company, as well as workers from companies where interim agreements have been reached. Fostering the necessary level of cooperation among groups of workers requires the development of a collective identity as workers in an industry (and broader economic system) which profits off the wholesale exploitation of low- wage immigrants. A catalyst for forging such sentiment was the three-year, highly visible organizing efforts of Justice for Janitors in San Jose. More broadly, Justice for Janitors has become an important symbol of immigrants fighting for their rights across the country, from D.C. to L.A., in the workplace and beyond. For example, after the Los Angeles uprising of 1992, Justice for Janitors held a huge march to protest stepped-up INS activity and police harassment, and to reclaim the Latino immigrant neighborhood of Pico-Union. LABOR AND COMMUNITY Political education of the workers in the Campaign cannot end with teaching the nuts and bolts of how to make the landscape industry a union stronghold. A further goal of the Campaign is to educate and activate workers around issues which go beyond winning a contract. For instance, a demonstration against California Governor Pete Wilson and his immigrant-bashing agenda is currently being planned. The Campaign has a longer-term agenda to encourage worker participation in struggles around affordable housing, public education, health care, pesticide policy reform and other vital issues. The community coalitions will play an important role in the accomplishment of this goal. Linking struggles together is key to strengthening the disparate social movements which have characterized the left over the last three decades. In the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, the Campaign for Justice can play an important role in advancing unity and cooperation. The coalitions which support the Campaign -- the Cleaning Up Silicon Valley Coalition and the Interfaith Committee for Economic Justice -- bring diverse activists together, besides being crucial to the unionization effort. Ongoing worker participation in the struggles of other Coalition member groups has been less developed so far, but we are working to change that. For example, the Affordable Housing Network is pushing the local Community Redevelopment Agency to prioritize low-income housing over subsidies to corporations. If the demands of the Network were realized, communities where landscapers and thousands of other low- wage immigrant workers live would benefit directly. Involving workers and their families in struggles such as this, while maintaining the Campaign's momentum in organizing, is a critical challenge facing the Campaign and its coalition partners. There are numerous hurdles ahead and organizing the landscape industry will require several years of concentrated effort. But the Campaign for Justice will carry out that fight with an eye toward constructing a multi-union movement which will organize low-wage workers simultaneously across industries. The organizers and workers in Campaign for Justice are taking one step at a time. But confident that they are building their program on a successful organizing model, the belief that "Si Se Puede!" livens the pace.