Workers at the Center: Silicon Valley Campaign for Justice by Lisa Hoyos
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
     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.
     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.
     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.
     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
     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
     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.
     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.