Economic Restructuring, Immigration and the New Labor Movement: Latina/o Janitors in Los Angeles (Working Paper #9)

Cynthia Cranford, University of Southern California

Introduction: The move toward a service-based economy has forced the American labor movement to change. The growing low-wage service sector is characterized by “flexible’ production resulting in contract, temporary, part-time or other casualized work. Labor law drafted in the pre-war era is ineffective protection for these new, casualized service-sector jobs; and labor protections were eroded in the Reagan decade. Restructuring has been achieved through processes of racialization as recently arrived immigrant women and men were recruited to the downgraded jobs. At the same time their work is made invisible through a gendered, anti-immigrant discourse that constructs them as economic burdens. In response to these structural changes, many unions have returned away from the bureaucratized, business unionism of the post-war era and have begun to organize the Latino and Asian immigrant women and men concentrated in these sectors. These unions have returned to a ‘community unionism,’ using direct-action organizing tactics successful in earlier periods of unionization. Like in previous historical moments when restructuring and immigration collided, immigrant women are active participants in this ‘new’ labor movement. In this paper I examine whether these processes affect relations of gender and race, with a case study of the Justice for Janitors (J4J) organizing campaign of the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles janitors are members of a new cohort of Latino workers, most of whom are recent arrivals. They are Salvadorans and Guatemalans who left home in the 1980s due to civil war and economic depression. The Mexicans are heavily made up of the ‘migrantes de la crises,’ described by Corneilus (1991), – new streams of migrants who left urban areas during the economic crises of the 1980s and early 1990s. Women are well represented in this new wave of Latino migrants. Many of these Latina migrants are single, most came to work and are significantly contributing to their household economies (Bretell and Simon 1986; Sassen and Fernandez-Kelly 1995). Women make up roughly 50% of Justice for Janitors members in Los Angeles. The prominent role played by women in Justice for Janitors, has recently been recognized during a three-week strike in L.A. Some politicians and journalists are calling the Justice for Janitors campaign a ‘new women’s movement” (Treviño 2000). However, Justice for Janitors is more than a movement for women. Justice for Janitors is mobilizing women alongside men within a frame of immigrant rights.

An understanding of the implications of this movement requires a theory and methodology that can link individual lives to structural constraints in a given historical moment. After a brief review of the literature on women and unions, I discuss how a theory of practice and a cohort analysis allows us to better understand social change. I then examine the structural constraints facing Justice for Janitors, focusing on the linkages between restructuring and immigration. Finally I examine the ‘frames’ and practices of organizing within this movement. I examine the extent to which women’s engagement in new practices alongside men disrupt gendered and racialized relations of power that shape the lives of both women and men.

Working Paper #9»