LOS ANGELES -- A strike by thousands of Southern California janitors might not just leave a mess in the glitzy high-rises of the city's west side and in neighboring Beverly Hills.
By October, offices from Seattle to New York could be feeling the effects of a national strategy that traces its roots to a five-year-old negotiation strategy.
In Chicago, 125 janitors were to begin a hunger strike today to protest the lack of health benefits for suburban janitors, whose contract expired Sunday; The city workers' contract expires this weekend.
In New York City, doormen, elevator operators and building superintendents, whose contracts expire April 20, planned a march on Wednesday. Various actions are planned in Oakland, Cleveland and Seattle in the months ahead.
The timing is no coincidence. The Service Employees International Union decided five years ago to negotiate a series of contracts that would expire within months of each other, turning the limited power of a few thousand here and there into the negotiating clout of more than 100,000 people.
''There's been a massive consolidation of the real estate industry in terms of who owns buildings and who cleans buildings,'' Stephen Lerner, head of the union's Building Services Division, said Sunday from Washington, D.C.
''Increasingly the people we negotiate with operate regionally and nationally. So it's just common sense that if the people we're opposing have a national strategy, we have a national strategy,'' he said.
That kind of thinking, combined with some of the most aggressive bargaining and recruiting tactics in organized labor, has made the 1.3 million-member union one of the fastest-growing and powerful labor organizations in the country.
''Their organizing tends to be among marginalized workers,'' said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. ''They also tend to emphasize justice, dignity and respect.
It is a message that has attracted thousands of workers to its ranks. In the cities where it has locals, the union says it represents up to 90 percent of all service workers.
In Washington, D.C., union membership went from 40 percent to 77 percent over the past five years. Over an 18-month period in 1988, the union targeted the Denver suburbs and said it went from nothing to representing more than 75 percent of the area's service workers.
In Los Angeles, the union became a major force in 1990 when its attempt to organize janitors in Century City turned into a bloody confrontation with police. About two dozen demonstrators were injured and 40 were arrested. Soon after, the union won the right to represent workers, and that day, June 15, has since been celebrated as ''Justice for Janitors Day.''
The current strike began last week and contractors quickly brought in replacement workers. On Sunday, the defiance spread as 25 unionized janitors walked off their jobs in San Diego. Labor organizers say some 300 are expected to be on strike by the end of the week.
The strike involves about 8,500 janitors working for 18 cleaning contractors who handle most of the city's commercial properties. They make $6.90 per hour. The union wanted $1-per-hour raises for the next three years. Contractors offered a one-year wage freeze, then 40-cents-per-hour raises for two years.
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