How Janitors Won Fair Pay

Updated on November 9, 2016

The Justice for Janitors movement was a pivotal time in labor organization. When workers were losing wages and benefits around the country, many workers felt they had no power to do anything about it. But when the conditions were right for a movement to be born, the ideas of change began to spread around the country. In this essay the Justice for Janitors movement will be dissected to see how it began, how it spread, and what it achieved.

The Justice for Janitors movement began in 1985. According to Hurd and Rouse (1989), it “was conceived during a bitter labor dispute with Pittsburgh's Mellon Bank.” There were many factors that led to this movement gaining traction. In the case of Mellon Bank, workers belonging to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had unceremoniously been replaced by a “cleaning contractor with a nonunion company” (Hurd & Rouse, 1989). This new contractor fulfilled the contract by hiring back only a small portion of the previous workers, except they did not have any of the rights or benefits that they had previously been afforded. This sort of cost cutting measure had become standard around the country due to “cutthroat competition among contractors [that amplified] the already sharp competition among unskilled labor within the local market” (Howley, 1990). In fact, Howley (1990) reports that “the number of contract cleaning workers is growing at twice the rate of the occupation as a whole.” From this we can determine that workers had been, and were continuing to, lose rights and benefits that had previously fought for. Those affected by these changes were often those who have the least power to have their voice heard in our society. For example, “in Atlanta, janitor Mary Jenkins was earning $3.40-an-hour with no benefits … Mary typifies the nonunion office cleaner” (Howley, 1990). Hurd and Rouse (1989) explain, “the janitorial work force consists of less educated minority workers, usually women and/or recent immigrants.” These are all conditions which Piven and Cloward (1977) identify as instability in societal roles. By taking away benefits, pay, and making work less stable, these employers were creating the very situation that would create change.

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The Justice for Janitors movement wanted to accomplish some simple goals. Howley (1990) tells us the main effort was to “re-establish the arrangement whereby the local union can control through bargaining the terms and conditions that will prevail across the local labor market.” More specifically, the SEIU sought to create employment security by eliminating the “independent contractor scam where the employer pays the worker a flat monthly or weekly amount, with no deductions or overtime” (Howley, 1990). By achieving the negotiating power of workers, the SEIU would be able to bring back the basic rights that hard working people deserve. Rights such as living wages and regular raises, earned vacation and sick time, as well as medical benefits that actually served employees without bankrupting them.

The SEIU needed to use a variety of tactics to get workers on board for the Justice for Janitors campaign. In some areas there may have been a weak union in place or a large number of employees who had previously been part of a union. In cases such as this, the SEIU would “[reorganize] previously unionized buildings, negotiating new master labor agreements and [reinvigorate] the union's local membership” (Hurd & Rouse, 1989). In a city where there was no previous union, the SEIU would organize janitors to act as if they were in a union, even if there was no formal labor contract in place. Where ever the Justice for Janitors movement was beginning to organize, they needed to adapt their strategy to fit the circumstances of what workers were dealing with in the area. The reason this would work is because “lack of attachment to the job translates into less fear of losing one's job, often a key deterrent to militancy” (Howley, 1990). It is important to keep in mind that this movement was not organized from scratch. According to Olney and Wilson (2015), it was “deeply rooted in the existing power, base and history of SEIU.” Given these conditions, the SEIU was in a position to organize workers who were ready to fight back, but just needed an ally to help them.

Once a consistent network of disgruntled workers was established, the movement could count on solidarity to initiate effective action. Howley (1990) explains that local field staff would train all workers in workplace violations and to report any and all laws that their employers were violating. Howley (2012) goes on to explain that “violations of employment and safety laws also can be used to draw public attention to the plight of the workers and bring enforcement pressure to bear on employers.” Once enough violations had been documented Justice for Janitors would then organize press conferences, public rallies, and even door-to-door canvassing to publically embarrass building owners and custodial contractors. For example, one group had a “clean-in” to protest the firing of thirteen janitors that joined the movement. In another protest, janitors picketed a business that required their employees to clean toilets with toothbrushes as punishment for trying to organize. Piven and Cloward (1977) emphasized the importance of having the right target for a protest. In this case, it was the cleaning businesses and building owners. Justice for Janitors was consistent in always targeting these adversaries, and allying with any other interest group they could. Howley (1990) also emphasized that the movement would foster the support of local groups that the janitors were a part of. This would include community sports teams, churches, school boards, city councils, and other more established unions. This tactic is not new. In fact, Saul Alinsky (1941) outlined the importance of “Organizing Organizations” to support a cause. By doing this, Justice for Janitors was able to show their opposition that it was not just janitors that were unhappy about these issues. With this support, Hurd and Rouse report that “janitors and community supporters have peacefully demonstrated in the lobbies of the Coca-Cola, CNN and Georgia-Pacific buildings.” Once support for workers was established “the SEIU's national office published a series of pamphlets which provide financial data on the local office building market, detailing the expenses associated with managing a building and delineating the disparity between building profits and janitorial wages” (Hurd & Rouse, 1989). Once again, we see that the tactic was to gain support for the janitors by shaming and embarrassing the employers and building owners.

Facing this organized effort, opposition was bound to arise from the stakeholders who were being asked to pay more for employees. One of the main tactics used by building owners was to obtain court orders that would prohibit these movement members from accessing their properties. One particularly aggressive property owner was John Portman, Atlanta’s largest developer. He used what Piven and Cloward (1977) refer to as repression of the issue. According to Hurd and Rouse (1989), “Portman Companies have leveled a broad-ranging legal barrage in an attempt to undermine the organizing efforts.” In addition to the substantial legal battles, Portman also instructed security guards at all properties to remove any union members from the premises. Due to the substantial resources or the Portman Company, union organizers were eventually prohibited not only from Portman properties, but also from nearby sidewalks. Organizers were also prohibited from shouting or using bullhorns (Hurd & Rouse, 1989). These tactics were sometime successful in keeping the issue at bay, or squashing the protest altogether. In other cases, it was the cleaning companies that would be the main opposition to the unionizing efforts. For example, “in Los Angeles long-time union signatory contractors like International Service Systems (ISS) were operating non-union or in the case of American Building Maintenance (ABM) double breasting by creating new entities like “Bradford Building Services” to clean non-union in LA” (Olney & Wilson, 2015). This is an example of what Piven and Cloward describe as ignoring the issue. These businesses would just try to make people happy, but ultimately hope the movement would disappear. By creating new companies, these businesses were able to avoid any union contracts that might be created after public support for the janitors forced these businesses to sign union contracts.

The success of the Justice for Janitors movement is apparent, and it has been able to spread from a local movement to a national movement, despite the opposition mentioned. In the case of Mellon Bank, The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Mellon Bank was a “co-employer” for the janitorial staff. Eventually Mellon Bank “agreed to reinstate janitors under the union contract and to pay $750,000 in back wages” (Hurd & Rouse, 1989). The movement which began in Pittsburgh, eventually spread to Atlanta, but it did not stop there. Once progress had been made in some cities, and began to achieve national headlines, the Justice for Janitors movement was used as a bargaining tool for pop-up movements in Portland, Denver, Philadelphia, San Diego, Seattle, and Los Angeles with varying success. Hurd and Rouse (1989) tell us that “the Justice for Janitors campaign has experienced some success in increasing union membership and in consolidating wage gains and benefits” (Hurd & Rouse, 1989). But the struggle is never ending.

The Justice for Janitors movement was an exercise in grass roots organizing of a minority and underappreciated class. The businesses that employed these people had the ability to abuse and take decent working conditions away from hard working people, all for the sake of saving money. But by organizing workers and loosely affiliated unions, the SEIU was able to consolidate a force that could fight back. While the opposition certainly fought hard to resist, in many cases, Justice for Janitors was able to successfully return the wages and benefits that had been taken from the employees. As the movement has spread from city to city, more workers have benefited from the organizing efforts of the SEIU. But the question remains, how will the movement continue to fight for the rights for workers. Because it is not a question of “if”, but “when” business owners will attempt to strip away what the movement has achieved.


Alinsky, S. D.. (1941). Community Analysis and Organization. American Journal of Sociology, 46(6), 797–808. Retrieved from

Howley, J. (1990). Justice for Janitors: The Challenge of Organizing In Contract Services. Labor Research Review, 1(15), 61 - 71.

Hurd, R. W. & Rouse, W. (1989). Progressive union organizing: The SEIU Justice for Janitors campaign [Electronic version]. Retrieved 2 February 2016, from Cornell University, ILR School site:

Olney, P., & Wilson, R. (2015). Justice for Janitors: A Misunderstood Success | The Stansbury Forum. Retrieved 6 February 2016, from

Piven, F., & Cloward, R. (1977). Poor people's movements (pp. 380-389). New York: Pantheon Books.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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