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Finding Aid for the Service Employees International Union, United Service Workers West records, ca. 1935-2008
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biography/History
  • Scope and Content
  • Organization and Arrangement
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Service Employees International Union, United Service Workers West records
    Date (inclusive): ca. 1935-2008
    Collection number: 1940
    Creator: United Service Workers West (USWW), Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
    Extent: 45 boxes (45 linear ft.)
    Abstract: The collection documents the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Los Angeles Justice for Janitors campaign (c. 1986- 2000), in which a low-wage workforce of largely Latino immigrants re-organized the Los Angeles commercial cleaning industry and organized janitors in surrounding counties as well. The campaign is widely seen as turning point for the immigrant rights movement and labor union renewal in the United States. The collection includes photos, audiovisual records, ephemera, internal publications, internal training and planning records, staff records, research studies, collective bargaining agreements, and records pertaining to grievances, legal disputes, union recognition, and contract negotiations. The bulk of the collection contains photos, audiovisual records, and documents from the Justice for Janitors, Los Angeles campaign from three rounds of organizing and contract negotiations (c. 1986-2000). The janitors' public demonstrations and campaign staff's research materials are particularly well documented. The collection also includes records from SEIU healthcare and security guard campaigns in Southern California and many photos and union legal records dating back to the 1930s.
    Language: Finding aid is written in English.
    Language of the Material: Materials are in English.
    Repository: University of California, Los Angeles. Library Special Collections.
    Los Angeles, California 90095-1575
    Physical location: Stored off-site at SRLF. Advance notice is required for access to the collection. Please contact UCLA Library Special Collections for paging information.

    Administrative Information

    Restrictions on Access

    Open for research. STORED OFF-SITE AT SRLF. Advance notice is required for access to the collection. Please contact UCLA Library Special Collections for paging information.

    Restrictions on Use and Reproduction

    Property rights to the physical object belong to the UC Regents. Literary rights, including copyright, are retained by the creators and their heirs. It is the responsibility of the researcher to determine who holds the copyright and pursue the copyright owner or his or her heir for permission to publish where The UC Regents do not hold the copyright.

    Provenance/Source of Acquisition

    United Service Workers West (USWW), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), 828 W. Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90015, April 19, 2012.

    Processing Note

    Processed by Julia Tomassetti, with assistance from Caroline Luce, June 2012.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Service Employees International Union, United Service Workers West records (Collection Number 1940). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.


    In the Los Angeles Justice for Janitors campaign (LA JfJ) (c. 1986- 2000), a low-wage workforce of largely Latino immigrants in a de-unionized industry organized through the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 399/Local 1877. The campaign won three area-wide contracts covering up to 9,500 janitors between 1987 and 2000 that included increased wages and full health coverage for 5,000 workers. It reversed the decline in union density in commercial cleaning by organizing 90 per cent of the building services market in downtown Los Angeles and the Century City business district. The campaign also unionized janitors in the suburbs and four additional counties.
    LA JfJ is widely seen as decisive event in contemporary struggles for immigrant rights and labor union renewal in the United States. It has become a paradigmatic example of "social movement unionism," a campaign combining grassroots mobilization with careful research and strategic planning to address changes in the legal terrain, workforce demographics, and industrial structures facing workers since the 1970s. The campaign is known for the massive participation of janitors in rambunctious, dramatic demonstrations and civil disobedience. LA JfJ had the highest worker participation of any recent labor campaign and mobilized extensive community support. The campaign defined itself around issues of immigration, inequality, the working poor, and the identities of workers as Latino/a immigrants. Also notable were its ability to exert political and economic pressure on key contractors and building owners, informed by careful and extensive research; its legal strategy; and savvy use of publicity.
    The campaign belied the assumption by organized labor that immigrants, and particularly undocumented immigrants, were not "organizable," due to their lack of interest and the political obstacles to organizing them. JfJ demonstrated to both the labor movement and Los Angeles political community that immigrants were eager to organize and ready to fill the ranks of organized labor as committed militants and experienced leaders.

    Organizational History

    SEIU Local 399 was founded in the 1940s and began organizing janitors in Los Angeles in 1946. The union also organized racetrack, entertainment venue, stadium and arena, and other building service workers in the Los Angeles area, including elevator operators and starters. During the Justice for Janitors campaign, Local 399 represented healthcare workers as well. In 1995 SEIU International Union placed Local 399 under trusteeship, and in 1997 janitors separated from Local 399 and joined a statewide janitor union, Local 1877. The Los Angeles janitors are now part of USWW, an organization of four SEIU building service Locals representing janitors, security guards, airport service workers, and other building service workers.

    JfJ History

    JfJ began in Denver 1986, a city with a relatively small commercial cleaning industry that served as a laboratory for developing the campaign's strategic repertoire and scalability. LA JfJ launched publicly in 1987, although research on Los Angeles began in 1986. Prior to the Los Angeles campaign, through prior experimentation and experience, SEIU's Building Services Division devised the campaign's strategic backbone-removing wages from competition by persuading all building owners in a defined market area to agree to hire only union contractors and persuade all large contractors in the area to agree to union recognition through neutrality agreements rather than a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election.

    Justice for Janitors, Los Angeles

    When Local 399 began organizing janitors in Los Angeles, most janitors were direct employees of building owners. In the 1950s, as national and international investors replaced local building owners, some owners began contracting out for cleaning services, although most janitors were still direct employees of building owners at this time and Local 399 successfully organized several large contractors. Health benefits, pensions, and full-time jobs for janitors were standard.
    In the 1970s and 1980s, building ownership became more concentrated and shifted to large foreign investors. Despite the investment fueling an office-building boom that increased demand for janitorial services, janitors faced de-unionization, lower wages, degraded working conditions, and increased employment violations. Outsourcing became more common, and large unionized contractors began losing competition to non-unionized firms prompting union contractors to set up non-union units, or "double-breast." Building owners sought to cut costs, and they lowered the wages that contractors paid to janitors through a competitive bidding process. Between 1978 and 1985, Local 399's janitorial membership declined from its 1978 peak of 5,000 to 1,800, only 8% of city's janitorial workforce. The union held onto only a small slice of the downtown market and in 1983 signed its last master contract, which included wage concessions.
    Workforce demographics also changed during industrial restructuring. In 1950, about half of the workforce was African American, but Latino/a immigrant employment increased and became dominant during the restructuring. Undocumented immigrants also became a larger proportion of the workforce. Non-union contractors devolved responsibility for hiring janitors to front-line Latino/a crew leaders, who recruited from their networks.
    Unionization attempts largely failed in 1980s. When the Local won NLRB elections, building owners or their management companies would terminate the service contractor and switch to non-union firm. Despite their control over janitors' wages and working conditions, since building owners and management companies were not the janitors' direct employers, they did not incur legal liability for retaliation, as would the contractor if it had fired the workers in the face of an organizing drive. Given the relative market power of building owners and managers vis-à-vis contractors, the former entered short-term agreements with contractors, and could easily replace them. Even if a new contractor hired the former unionized contractor's employees, it generally was under no legal obligation to recognize the union. Some contractors regularly fired and rehired employees every 2 years to avoid unionization.
    Employment law violations increased as well with restructuring, including violations of minimum wage and hour laws, workers compensation and unemployment insurance regulations, and health and safety laws. The devolution of recruitment and supervision to front-line crew leaders made exploitation harder to detect and curb. Workers were unaware of who was responsible for their working conditions. Further, small contractors could violate employment protections with greater facility. Inadequate record keeping and cash payments made violations difficult to detect and establish, they had few assets available to satisfy judgments, and they could easily dissolve or file for bankruptcy in the face of a judgment.
    LA JfJ began in downtown Los Angeles. Campaign research revealed that only two companies, and their non-union subsidiaries, dominated the market for large buildings. The campaign targeted non-union wings of these contractors and persuaded buildings to terminate their contracts. Following the downtown victory, the campaign focused on Century City, a Westside business district of expensive office complexes. Janitors struck and held daily demonstrations. A turning point came on June 15, 1990, when police attacked a peaceful daytime demonstration of about 300 workers, students, and community activists in plain sight of tenants and the public. Public outcry and the threat of a janitorial work stoppage in New York City prompted the largest contractor to negotiate with the janitors.
    Using the same strategy and much of the same tactics, despite changing ownership patterns in the Los Angeles commercial real estate industry, Local 399/Local 1877 successfully negotiated a second and third contract, in 1995 and 2000, respectively. A well-organized strike in 2000 with support from the Los Angeles Federation of Labor and other unions produced a countywide contract covering 5,000 additional janitors.

    Scope and Content

    The collection is arranged in series and sub-series by type of material. It includes photos, audiovisual records, ephemera, internal publications, internal training and planning records for the organization, staff records, research studies, collective bargaining agreements, and records pertaining to grievances, legal disputes, union recognition, and contract negotiations. The bulk of the collection contains photos, audiovisual records, and documents from the Justice for Janitors, Los Angeles campaign from three rounds of organizing and contract negotiations (c. 1986-2000). The collection contains extensive photos, ephemera, and organizing materials documenting the janitors' dramatic and colorful demonstrations, civil disobedience, savvy use of media, and community alliances. Also well-documented in staff records are the campaign's strategic corporate and worksite research, organizing efforts, alliance building, and political strategies. The collection includes considerable material on the campaign's major organizing efforts, including downtown Los Angeles, Century City, the University of Southern California, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Hughes Aircraft, and Toyota.
    Also included are materials from other recent Local 399 campaigns and records pre-dating LA JfJ. Photos document Local 399 healthcare worker organizing, as well as SEIU allied division organizing of stadium, arena, racetrack, and entertainment workers. Older photos include Local 399 workers from the 1950s-1970s and photos from other unions dating back to the 1930s. The collection includes research and organizing materials for Justice for Janitors campaigns in Northern California, including its campaign for Hewlett-Packard workers in Sacramento, and Los Angeles efforts to organize security guards. The collection also includes many records dating to the 1950s pertaining to the union's representation of janitors, racetrack workers, elevator starters and operators, and other service workers. These document legal disputes, union recognition, collective bargaining relationships, and internal complaints.

    Organization and Arrangement

    Arranged in the following series and subseries:
    1. Legal, older
    2. Internal training and planning
    3. Ephemera
    4. Internal publications
    5. Studies
    6. Press
    7. Video/computer records
    8. Photos
    9. Agreements, bylaws, and constitutions
    10. Staff records
      • a. Dave Stillwell
      • b. Leticia Salcedo
      • c. Triana Silton
      • d. Aida Cardenas
      • e. Claudia
      • f. Doris Boyd Snyder
      • g. Viren Moret
      • h. Jon Barton
      • i. Rocio Saenz
      • j. Mary Anne Hohenstein
      • k. Oscar Molina
      • l. Jono Shaffer
      • m. Eddie Iny
      • n. Peter Olney
      • o. Rose Hodges
      • p. Other research
      • q. Miscellaneous

    Notes on organization

    Collection processors used original folder titles from collection creators when present and applicable. Two collection processors are responsible for date attributions on photographs when dates were not included on creators' original folder titles.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.


    Service Employees International Union United Service Workers West --Archives.
    Labor unions --Service industries workers --California --Los Angeles --Archival resources.