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Jewish World Review April 14, 2000/ 9 Nissan, 5760

Larry Elder

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Consumer Reports



Striking janitors: virtual slaves? -- "THIS IS VIRTUAL SLAVERY."

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky so described the wages of striking union janitors.

In Los Angeles, 8,500 janitors called for a strike against nearly 20 private cleaning contractors. The janitors belong to the Service Employees International Union, claiming 1.3 million members nationwide, the fastest-growing union in the country. Organizers' actions threaten strikes against contractors/employers all over the country.

In Los Angeles, unionized janitors earn an average of $6.80 to $7.90 per hour plus health benefits. They seek a $1.00 per hour raise for each of the next three years.

Striking members staged rallies in downtown Los Angeles, as well as the affluent communities of Century City and Beverly Hills. Sympathetic newspapers published photographs of strikers marching in front of expensive cars driven by frustrated commuters. Never mind that but for some of these commuters, there would be no demand for office space in the very buildings cleaned by the striking janitors.

Certainly any worker possesses the right to seek more wages. Among the workers' options include quitting, looking for another job, working a second job, or striking for better wages. Strikers must, however, recognize that employers possess options as well. An employer may refuse the pay hike, lock the workers out, and/or seek replacement workers.

"Virtual slavery"?

No one puts a gun to the head of workers and screams, "Work for low-ball wages or I'll blow your brains out." In fact, many Los Angeles-based strikers entered the country illegally in pursuit of wages substantially higher than those offered by their native countries. Many obtained work because their employers -- cleaning contractors -- sought cheaper, and thus non-union labor. Strikers could, therefore, be replaced by others more than happy to voluntarily participate in "virtual slavery" -- the same way many of the current strikers found work. And, while strikers complain about low wages, the average salary remains a full dollar higher than California's minimum wage.

One striker, in a sympathetic newspaper story, complained about his inability to purchase a home for his wife and three kids. Well, maybe a little family planning might be in order.

In the late '40s, my father worked two jobs as a janitor, and cooked for a family on the weekends. Several nights a week, he attended night school to obtain his GED. Hoping to open a restaurant, my father later attended courses in restaurant management. He did build his café, going from janitor to restaurateur.

"I'm a worker, not a slave!"
He, too, wanted a home for his family, but deferred having children until he and my mom bought, in 1947, their first home.

No disrespect intended, but janitors make low wages because the work, while difficult, requires little in the way of advanced skills. One striking janitor, who had been in this country 16 years, complained in Spanish about not having received a raise in years. Sixteen years in America, and still unable to speak English? Surely that limits one's job options.

Another local newspaper published an article entitled "Janitors' Quest Complicated by Shifting Nature of the Job." We meet beleaguered janitor Rosa Alvarenga and her husband. But assume they both make the average $6.80 an hour. Multiply that by 40 hours a week times 52 weeks (benefits include vacation, health care and sick time). That comes to $28,288, not including the value of benefits.

The article also mentions a daughter, an unmarried mother, who works part time. Assume the daughter works half time at the same rate as her parents.

That's an additional $7,072, or a family total of $35,360. (This excludes contributions, if any, made by the father of the daughter's child.) There's more. At swap meets, the couple resells goods that they purchase at garage sales. Bottom line, the couple has a combined income of over $35,000, plus benefits, plus whatever they bring in from swap meets. In addition, the daughter may be eligible for other benefits, including earned income tax credits.

Union leaders say strikers seek respect. "Their organizing tends to be among marginalized workers," said Industrial Relations Professor Gary Chaison of Clark University. "They also tend to emphasize justice, dignity and respect. Instead of saying, 'We're going to get you tremendous wage increases,' they say, 'We're going to get you bargaining agreements that will give you your fair share of economic prosperity.'"

To paraphrase President Clinton, it depends on what your definition of "fair" is. The supply and demand for labor determines its price. The more in demand the skills, the bigger the paycheck. Under free enterprise, the market defines what is "just."

As legendary economist Adam Smith said, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

Virtual slavery, indeed.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate