LOS ANGELES – I don’t tear up very often. Tears probably were drummed out of me as a child. But standing there on the sidewalk a few weeks ago, I found myself with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. Before me almost a thousand janitors wearing deep purple Service Employee International Union T-shirts lined up to march from a Beverly Hills park to the high-rise offices of Century City.
The day celebrated the time, 25 years ago, when the people who clean buildings walked off their jobs. In a campaign called Justice for Janitors, they had marched nonviolently between those tall buildings, only to find themselves facing a phalanx of Los Angeles Police Department officers, batons swinging. Dozens were hurt, but the TV footage made citywide news, and a tide turned.
Suddenly the unseen low-wage workers made the front page. Instead of being ignored, they found themselves lauded as heroes, and after continuous demonstrations over a 20-day strike, they had a union contract. They got a raise, had a health plan for their families and gained protections on the job from harassment and wage theft. Most importantly, they gained a voice in how their work was done.
A quarter of a century later, the men and women in purple T-shirts who now gathered in the street to march would be protected and guided by police officers from Beverly Hills and Los Angeles. They filled three lanes, two blocks long, packed together. Their march followed a brief rally at the park, where clergy prayed and Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Congresswoman Maxine Waters spoke, and where Rusty Hicks, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, announced that the California state legislature had just passed a bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.
The day and the timing felt auspicious. It was March 31st, Cesar Chavez’s birthday, a day noted by people across California and around the world for the groundbreaking work he did to bring recognition to people who labor in the fields pruning grape vines, weeding rows of vegetables, picking and packing fruit.
I remembered my own small role in that effort decades ago, when we leafleted supermarket parking lots in Los Angeles, asking people to boycott grapes or certain brands of wine and produce. I also remembered marching with farm workers in Los Angeles and in the fields. Urged by the National Farm Worker Ministry, clergy and congregations brought food to support striking workers who otherwise would not have much to eat. My first act of civil disobedience took place in a dry irrigation ditch that separated a public road from a vineyard in the Coachella Valley.
Last September the UFW marked the 50th anniversary of the grape boycott. Hundreds of people gathered at Forty Acres outside Delano – the original base for the union and now a national historic site. Dolores Huerta and other leaders of the union reminded us of the personal courage required of strikers in those early struggles. Arturo Rodriguez, the current president of the UFW, described the price farm workers and their families paid to take that stand. “Ninety percent of the people who went out on strike,” he said, “lost their homes or their cars or both.” People lost everything, except each other.
And that’s what made the difference. An obscure organizing effort for justice in the rural fields of California, where others had tried and failed, sparked a movement that impacted the consciousness of a people. Marginalized and pushed into neighborhoods cut off from the mainstream of Los Angeles and other cities across the Southwest, these workers infused new pride into a culture that soon called itself Chicano and La Raza. People stood up again, stood tall again.
And so 25 years ago, the mostly Latino janitors stood up for justice among the skyscrapers that signify wealth and power. And they won. And here I was standing on the curb watching all these people ready to march again, ready to stand up for themselves again. My eyes knew, but slowly my mind recognized that I was watching the sweep of history embodied in these people, in this struggle.
Justice starts in many small ways we can never quite anticipate. Historic shifts happen while hardly anyone notices. Participating, even a little bit, brings meaning to my life. Walking with others who have so much more at stake, who take great risks of life and livelihood, gives me hope. Standing on a curb in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, looking on as a group of working people prepared for yet another march, my heart moved and my eyes filled with tears. I was watching how justice gets made.
Rev. Jim Conn is the founding minister of the Church in Ocean Park and served on the Santa Monica City Council and as that city’s mayor. He helped found Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, and was its second chair, and was a founder of Santa Monica’s renter’s rights campaign.
Reprinted, including photo, by permission of the author and Capital & Main.