Oral Histories

Interview of Jono Shaffer

Organizer for the Service Employees International Union. One of the leaders of the union’s Justice for Janitors campaign.
Donde Haiga un Trabajador Explotado, Ahí Estaré Yo: Justice for Janitors' Workers, Organizers, and Allies
Social Movements
Labor Movement
Biographical Note:
Organizer for the Service Employees International Union. One of the leaders of the union’s Justice for Janitors campaign.
Gomez, Andrew
Shaffer, Jono
Persons Present:
Shaffer and Gomez.
Place Conducted:
Sessions one through nine: Gomez's apartment in West Los Angeles, California; Session ten: UCLA Labor Center in Los Angeles, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by, Andrew Gomez, a Ph.D. student in UCLA’s history department with a specialization in United States working-class history. Gomez prepared for the interview by reading Tom Waldman’s Not Much Left: The Fate of Liberalism in America; David Halle’s New York & Los Angeles: Politics, Society, and Culture: A Comparative View; Raphael Sonenshein’s Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles; Ruth Milkman’s L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement; Lydia Savage’s Justice for Janitors in Los Angeles; and various archival articles from the Los Angeles Times.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. Shaffer was then given an opportunity to review the transcript and made a number of corrections and additions. Those corrections were entered into the text without further editing or review on the part of the Center for Oral History Research staff.
14 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
This series documents the Justice for Janitors movement in Los Angeles from the 1980s through the early 2000s. Justice for Janitors is a labor organization of the Service Employees International Union that has historically sought to improve the working conditions and bargaining power of workers in the janitorial services industry. The movement has taken various forms in different cities, with Los Angeles serving as the largest center of activity. By including interviews with labor organizers, politicians, and rank-and-file members, the series aims to offer a comprehensive picture of the Justice for Janitors movement in Los Angeles. In addition to documenting Justice for Janitors, the series also explores many of the participants' experiences in Central America before immigrating to the U.S. and interviewees' involvement in other facets of the labor movement in the U.S. and Central America. This project was generously supported by Arcadia funds.
After reviewing the transcript, Shaffer requested that Session 8 of the interview, recorded on December 8, 2011, be redone, as he felt that he had not adequately addressed the events recounted there. On May 6, 2016, the interviewer thus met with Shaffer to record an additional session that would cover that material in greater depth. That session appears here as Session 10. The original Session 8 is available to researchers on site at UCLA Library Special Collections.
Early memories of growing up in Berkeley-- Being raised in a family with a long activist tradition-- Role of paternal grandparents in founding Communist Party in Cleveland-- Multicultural upbringing in schools and environment-- Extended family of radicals spread throughout the United States-- Memories of Berkeley and attending rallies at People’s Park-- Experimental Schools Program and racial integration in Berkeley schools-- Experience as a trumpet player as a teenager-- Vibrant music environment in Berkeley during the 1960s and 1970s-- Initial decision to forego college and become a carpenter after high school-- Early union experience while working as a carpenter-- Feeling of attachment to labor movement because of family history but dissuaded by the stagnant nature of the labor movement in the late 1970s-- History of his cousin, Dave Hilberman, being blacklisted during the McCarthy era by Walt Disney-- Eventual decision to go to college at University of California (UC), Santa Cruz-- Takes part in ethnic studies protests at UC Santa Cruz-- Interest in the Central American solidarity movement-- Joins a construction brigade in Sandinista-era Nicaragua-- Work in community housing in West Oakland.
Time as an Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) organizer-- View of a conservative Los Angeles-- Opportunities to work with Central Americans-- History of the merger of the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) and the power struggle involved-- Early failures in organizing-- Finding creative ways to speak to workers-- Hot shop organizing vs. targeting-- Poor state of working conditions in textile industry in 1980s-- Early experiences and disappointment with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process-- “Blacklisted” by Richard Rothstein-- Trips to Georgia and New York-- Introduction to Justice for Janitors in Los Angeles-- The importance of allowing outsiders (non rank-and-file) to have autonomous authority-- Downtown Los Angeles focus.
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) history with recruiting janitors-- Shift in how buildings operate leads to a decrease in power of janitorial unions-- Shift from direct agreements with building owners to relationships between unions and contractors-- The late 1970s sees the beginning of a concerted effort among contractors to lessen working conditions and wages-- Difficulty in unionizing sub-contracted work-- Union failure to understand transformation in cleaning industry-- Stephen Lerner and the articulation of a new plan of attack for the labor movement-- Justice for Janitors' beginnings and the Denver campaign-- Strategy to get business owners to alter their decision-making process-- Shift in work force from African American to Latino was complete by time of Justice for Janitors-- Difficulty in organizing janitors because so few worked in a single building-- First Los Angeles campaign against the Southern California Gas Company-- Creating a culture at the union hall where rank-and-file members felt welcome-- The importance of bold demonstrations-- Problems of the National Labor Relations Act and secondary boycotts-- Tactics used in the Gas Company fight and their origins in the Civil Rights Movement and United Farm Worker struggles-- Workers increasingly identify with the union as they see the organizers' commitment-- Importance of involving union workers in the organizing of non-union workers-- Events that lead to the victory over the Gas Company.
Surveying Los Angeles and the difficulty of organizing contracted work-- Decision to go against Century Cleaning first-- Development of Downtown Los Angeles in the 1980s-- Furtive strategies for recruiting workers in Downtown Los Angeles-- Tactics used in Justice for Janitors and their incompatibility with the broader labor movement-- The importance of “noise protests”-- Involvement of rank-and-file members in creative protests-- Collaboration with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE)-- Finding common interest between the contractor and the workers-- California Plaza Campaign and memories of risky organizing efforts and demonstrations-- Ways that workers were able to show defiance at work-- Decision of California Plaza to hire only union contractors-- Importance of publicizing all of Justice for Janitor's actions-- The importance of making demonstrations fun-- The use of trigger agreements-- Century Cleaning goes union and Justice for Janitors has a majority of the janitorial industry in Downtown Los Angeles acknowledging union rights-- First Janitors Convention in 1988-- Negotiation of industry-wide contracts.
Janitors Convention of 1988-- Bargaining a master framework in Los Angeles that will serve as a framework for the rest of Los Angeles County-- Old guard vs. new guard issues in labor politics-- Decision to choose the Danish-owned corporation ISS as next business target-- ISS's Scandinavian standards at odds with their practices in the United States-- History of organizing janitorial work in Century City throughout the 1980s-- Debate within leadership group on whether to concentrate on Downtown or Century City-- Importance of Berta Northey and Rocio Saenz in organizing efforts-- Early strikes in the winter of 1989/1990 and overall strategy-- Advantages of organizing actions in smaller buildings-- Rank-and-file members and organizing traditions from Latin America-- Efforts to reach out to international labor community-- International Labour Organization (ILO) representatives visit Los Angeles to witness working conditions in the United States.
Early press coverage of the Justice for Janitors campaign-- The tale of two cities debate-- Opting for a regional approach as opposed to a building-by-building approach-- Inclusive attitude towards immigrants as radical stance in the labor movement-- Background on deciding to target Century City buildings-- Actions and shutting down Century City-- Santa Claus action and the importance of creative tactics-- Increasingly tense relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)-- Publicizing campaigns against building owners and the trash campaign-- The real cost of janitorial work-- Large solidarity march in Roxbury Park-- The incorporation of Latin American strike traditions in Justice for Janitors-- Police violence against protestors; a transformational moment in the movement where momentum shifts Justice for Janitors' way-- Decision among rank-and- file members to continue to demonstrate regardless of police violence-- Musing over how Justice for Janitors changed the future of labor organizing and working conditions throughout the United States-- Negotiations to settle with ISS and a master contract for Los Angeles.
ISS signing master agreement-- Attention of the campaign shifts to ABM Bradford Building Services-- Old guard vs. new guard issues within the labor movement-- Process of beginning the campaign against Bradford-- Latino media in Southern California and its effectiveness-- Bradford's use of union-busting tactics-- West Coast tour with fired Bradford workers-- The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) support fired Bradford workers-- Making headway against Bradford and negotiations to reach an agreement-- Shift to local employers, rather than national and international employers. after Bradford campaign-- The expense of fighting a union-- Hot shop organizing vs. targeting-- Organizing Lucky Supermarket janitors hired by DMS in Southern California-- DMS campaign winds down in another victory for SEIU-- Post-94 climate where nearly every Los Angeles building used unionized janitors-- Reaching the point where contractors were preemptively calling the union to negotiate-- Push for an industry-wide contract in 1995 and the One-One-One Campaign-- Press coverage in local newspapers throughout Los Angeles County-- Idea to shut down the 110 Freeway-- Agreement on industry-wide contract and another victory for SEIU.
Proposal to organize security and airport workers-- Tensions between African-American and Latino communities-- Consolidation of the security industry-- Reluctance to organize security from within the SEIU-- Encouragement to organize across unions-- Airlines as controlling force for passenger service work-- Stephen Lerner’s return to the SEIU and Shaffer's efforts at heading the new security work project-- September 11th, 2001 and its effect on the security industry-- Problem of “security only” unions or company unions-- Attempt at a labor-management agreement in the post-9/11 climate-- Los Angeles as ground zero for the security worker battle-- Security worker vs. security guard-- National vs. regional security companies-- Somalian security workers in Minneapolis and post-9/11 Islamophobia-- Securitas security services and their contrasting practices in Europe and the United States-- Thomas Berglund and his trip to the United States-- Framing the security fight as a fight over improving conditions in the black community-- Using the analogies of Memphis during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement-- Stand for Security campaign-- Campaign against Rob Maguire and the building owner’s association-- 2006 official settlement for workers to be recognized by a union of their choice--Shaffer’s departure from the property services division and his work taking on the financial industry.