The new president of the Service Employees International Union has declared an end to strikes and demonstrations in the union's militant, 10-year Justice for Janitors organizing campaign in the District, and called for cooperation rather than confrontation.
In a letter to the Washington real estate community, SEIU President Andrew L. Stern said the militancy of the janitors' campaign has "produced a degree of polarization that serves none of our interests." In his letter, Stern said the union would immediately cease strikes, picketing and demonstrations in the city and that the union would work with the
real estate industry in an effort to reform the city's tax assessment process.
The Justice for Janitors campaign is best known for blocking bridges into Washington during rush hour to dramatize the union's organizing efforts. In one of the biggest disruptions two years ago, morning rush-hour traffic entering the District on the 14th Street bridge was brought to a halt by union members with signs and bullhorns. The union also has staged noisy sidewalk demonstrations outside nonunion office buildings and has sent demonstrators to disrupt government and corporate meetings.
The SEIU represents about 1,700 janitors who clean nearly half of the commercial office buildings in the District. Nationwide, the union has organized nearly 35,000 janitors using the in-your-face organizing tactics that had become the hallmark of the District campaign.
Some of the SEIU's most persistent -- and personal -- actions in recent years have been aimed at CarrAmerica Realty Corp., the District's largest private landlord. The union campaign has attempted to demonize Chairman Oliver T. Carr, in casting him as a heartless villain.
A Carr spokeswoman said yesterday: "We're pleased that the SEIU has chosen a constructive manner in which to communicate with us and the rest of the real estate community. Their decision to focus their efforts directly with the contractors is clearly a more appropriate approach than targeting third parties as has been done in the past."
Stern, in his letter, which the union sent out last week, acknowledged it would take time to heal the wounds of the past 10 years in the city's business commmunity. "Ten years of angry disputes will not be forgotten overnight," he wrote. Stern said in the letter he decided to call the truce after meeting with a number of real estate executives over the past few months. Stern said he concluded that neither side would go away and that for the District to prosper both sides must work together.
Bill Ragan, national director of the SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign, said the union has not set a timetable for its new effort. "There's no deadline here. Our cease fire removes an obstacle," he said. "We want to show there is an option to blocking bridges."
The shift in tactics has potential implications for labor relations beyond the Washington area. Stern, 45, was elected SEIU president last year with a reputation as a leader of the new breed of militant union leaders moving into top union positions around the country. He succeeded John F. Sweeney, who was elected president of the AFL-CIO.
As a top aide to Sweeney, Stern was the architect of some of the union's most militant organizing tactics nationwide, including bridge-blocking demonstrations.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Stern said he decided to call the cease fire because "it's just hard to talk when everyone's shooting. Obviously, we're nervous," adding he hoped the action would demonstrate that the SEIU was a multidimensional organization.
Ragan said the union has had "a series of good meetings at pretty high levels" with owners of commercial buildings in the District. "We just feel we've got a dialogue going."
A key to future cooperation between the two sides may be the shift in the union's position on the property tax assessment issue in the District.
After years of legal battles, the SEIU last year succeeded in placing an initiative on the D.C. ballot to change the appeals process. In November, voters overwhelmingly approved the measure, called Initiative 51. Among the changes the law makes is to allow third parties -- such as unions -- to appeal assessments considered too low. Previously, only building owners could appeal assessments and only when they thought their tax bill was too high.
Landlords, working through a coalition of major business groups, have attempted to get the Financial Control Board to overturn the law, arguing it would raise their costs and wreak havoc by making confidential financial information available to competitors. The control board would not veto the initiative, but asked that the measure be softened through regulations that bar nuisance appeals.
Stern said yesterday that the union was willing to work with the landlords to ease the effects of the tax initiative. "Our goal is to have homeowners and business owners pay fairly," he said. "You don't need to have access to confidential proprietary information or third-party intervention to do that."