This article originally appeared at TalkPoverty.org.
On June 15, 1990, the Los Angeles Police Department viciously attacked immigrant janitors who were striking for the right to organize in Century City, Los Angeles. In a story that is now all too familiar, the police claimed they were defending themselves. Only later, when TV news footage exposed the police clubbing non-violent strikers, was the self-defense claim discredited. Two women miscarried, dozens were hospitalized, and 60 strikers and supporters were jailed.
After the violence, the workers regrouped in a nearby park where one of the strikers said, “What they did to us today in front of the TV cameras, is the way the police treat us every day.” Another woman striker told a reporter, “I wasn’t robbing a bank or selling drugs, I’m simply asking for an increase in pay but the police beat us as if we were garbage.”
However, the police assault backfired, and the response of the campaign organizers and activists is still instructive today. Far from being beaten into submission, the strikers met the next day and voted unanimously to return to the scene of the violence on the following day.
Over the next weeks, public outrage at the police helped galvanize support for the strikers. Janitors in Century City won their union, doubling their pay and benefits. Century City also proved a tipping point for the Justice for Janitors campaign. Many in the labor movement had argued that janitors were impossible to organize—they were undocumented, part-time, subcontracted, workers of color—but the campaign demonstrated clearly that not only could these workers organize, they could win.
Emboldened by success in Century City, Janitors in Washington, D.C. blocked the 14th Street Bridge with school buses, effectively shutting down the nation capital’s rush hour commute.
At the University of Miami, Janitors fasted for weeks as part of their lengthy and winning strike. Workers in wheel chairs, weakened by the fast, surrounded the university’s president, Donna Shalala and chanted in Spanish, “Union or death!” In Houston, 5,000 Janitors won a first-time union contract in a “right-to-work” state, despite the fact that bail was set at more than $20 million for people arrested for non-violent acts of civil disobedience in the city. Workers in cities across the nation went on strike in support of the Houston Janitors, and allies in Europe occupied buildings. Finally, pension fund trustees in charge of $1 trillion in workers’ pension fund capital adopted “responsible contractor” procedures—committing to invest only in office buildings where janitors were treated fairly.