While businessmen and executives slept, they came in unseen to clean the tall glass office buildings. Invisible, that is, to their employers — but not to their children, parents, friends, family and loved ones. In April 2000, about 8,000 janitors — predominately Latina and immigrant — went on strike in Los Angeles. Trading mops and brooms for picket signs, and turning buckets into makeshift drums, they stood together in solidarity alongside their fellow workers, family members, educators, clergy, elected officials, and other community supporters. After three weeks on the line, these courageous workers, who had organized with Service Employees International Union, Local 1877, through the Justice for Janitors (www.justiceforjanitors.org) campaign, signed a new contract, gaining them fair wages, health care, and the respect and dignity they deserved.
A testament to the strength of community-based collective action, their tale makes likely material for a documentary, news report, union drive, or scholarly study. In the skillful hands of writer Diana Cohn and illustrator Francisco Delgado it also makes for a compelling, intelligent, and powerful children's book. Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We Can! Janitor Strike in L.A. is the story of Local 1877's successful organizing effort, as told from the perspective of a little boy, Carlitos, whose mother assumed a vocal role in the Union's effort.
Following his father's death, Carlitos' familia moved to Los Angeles, where his mother has to eke out a living by working full time as a janitor, in addition to cleaning houses and washing clothes on weekends. Still, she cannot afford medication for his grandmother; and working so hard prevents her from spending quality time with Carlitos. It is a situation many in San Antonio can relate to.
Every night, Carlitos' mamá tells him to "sleep with the angels" before leaving for work. In the mornings they trade places. As the bus carries him off to school, he calls out to his mother to sleep with the angels, returning her bendición. "To work so hard and get paid so little isn't fair," Carlitos' mamá explains when telling him about the strike. And as she caresses her only son, she asks for his help.
As Carlitos shares newspaper clippings, photos, and his mother's stories from the picket line, he discovers he isn't the only one with a parent on strike. Even Miss Lopez, his teacher, supports the janitors, telling her students how what their parents have done reminds her of her grandparents involvement with the United Farm Workers. Carlitos knows he wants to do something to help his mamá. But it is only after seeing her speak on television that he realizes what he will do. Small acts like his speak volumes. After all, what is a movement if not those individual acts of resistance, multiplied over and over?
Following a decades-long decline, union membership — and union strength — is increasing in some workplaces, because labor has begun to recognize that all workers deserve rights and protection under the law, regardless of their citizenship status. The Justice for Janitors campaign grew steadily since its inception in the mid-'80s by organizing Latino and immigrant communities and using bold, direct, and highly visible tactics that asserted their rights as cultural citizens while challenging nativist sentiment.
We need more victories like Local 1877s. At the time, their success resonated beyond Southern California. Deservedly, Raza celebrated their gains, a testament to the power of collective action and community organizing. Furthermore, the Justice for Janitor's campaign provided a well-needed shot in the arm to big labor, reminding them what they should have known all along: that the old game of divide-and-conquer, whether splitting white workers from the Black and Latino rank-and-file, or between citizen and immigrant, only played in the bosses' favor. It's a lesson everyone should take to heart.
Sí, Se Puede! is the best kind of political literature for children and the grown-ups who read to them. It is not dogmatic, dull, or condescending. By telling the story from Carlitos' perspective, Cohn allows young readers to relate to and understand the reasons behind the strike. These are not agit-prop, cardboard cut-outs, or caricatures. Although it is fiction, Cohn based the book on the lives of women and men she met or read about.
Full of hope and conviction, beautifully illustrated, and written in lucid, poetic prose, Sí, Se Puede! is a testament to the strength of solidarity and struggle.
Alejandro Pérez writes for the San Antonio Current. E-mail email@example.com.