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Service Employee International Union's tactics rooted in 1980s

| Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014, 10:30 p.m.

The Service Employees International Union's organizing approach is only a few decades old.

During the mid-1980s, SEIU was struggling to unionize janitorial workers in major cities. Commercial building owners began to contract out cleaning services to companies that used cheaper nonunion labor.

When SEIU tried to organize the private janitorial contractors, building owners would switch to a nonunion company.

The old way of organizing building-by-building wasn't going to work. So SEIU began thinking bigger, with city-wide campaigns to raise wage standards for workers in an entire market, said Richard Hurd, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University.

“Instead of simply trying to organize the workers, they figured out in each different industry and each different setting, what is the best way to gain leverage versus the employer,” Hurd said.

Efforts to organize janitors coalesced into a movement known as “Justice for Janitors.” A strike and street demonstrations in Los Angeles in 1990 attracted national interest, drawing support from religious leaders, community organizers and politicians.

Former Vice President Al Gore, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., backed Justice for Janitors campaigns, which have secured 27 master contacts with commercial cleaning contractors, the union says.

The slogan “One Industry, One Union, One Contract” doubled as an organizing strategy for SEIU that has continued today, including the recent efforts to raise wages for fast-food workers nationwide.

“What's happening now with fast food is a natural parallel to what happened in the 1980s,” Hurd said. “Because instead of trying to organize the workers fast-food outlet by fast-food outlet, they're figuring out the best way to have leverage against the employers.”

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