Skip to main content

Constructing Union Motherhood: Gender and Social Reproduction in the Los Angeles “Justice for Janitors” Movement

Abstract

The literature recognizes the need for unions to change their strategies in order to organize women but whether these strategies reinforce or undermine gender inequality is insufficiently examined. An ethnography of the Los Angeles Justice for Janitors movement demonstrates how women can mitigate unequal gender relations tied to social reproduction through unions. Secondary documents, participant observation and in-depth interviews with Latina/o immigrant janitors and with union staff show how women janitors constructed a union motherhood that undermined the invisibility and devaluation of caregiving generally performed by women. As they moved into union leadership, women worker leaders made caregiving more visible in union practice and recognized its value in the way they framed a broader unionism for the family. Attention to how unions contend with social reproduction extends our understanding of the consequences of union renewal for gender inequality.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. The ensuing description of the movement draws on (Cranford 2004).

  2. The 1997 merger with SEIU local 1877 resulted in nine new seats for janitors on the Executive board. Women won two of the six elected positions and took one of the three positions that were appointed for lack of a candidate. (Activista Spring 1997 and 1998 data from SEIU local 1877).

  3. Para que haiga union (La la la la la bamba), para que haiga union (la la la la la bamba), se nececita un nuevo contrato; un nuevo contrato pa’ ti pa’ mi, pa’ ti pa’ mi, pa’ ti, pa’ mi. Aaaariba (Laaaa Bamba), aaariba, con la union, con la union.

References

  • Blewett, M. H. (1991). Manhood and the market: The politics of gender and class among the textile workers of Fall River, Massachusetts, 1870–1880. In A. Baron (Ed.), Work engendered: Toward a new history of American labor (pp. 92–113). Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Briskin, L., & McDermott, P. (Eds.) (1993). Women challenging unions: Feminism, democracy, and militancy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bourdieu, P. (1999). Acts of resistance against the tyranny of the market, translated by R. Nice. New York: The New Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bronfenbrenner, K., Friedman S., Hurd, R., Oswald, R., & Seeber, R. (Eds.) (1998). Organizing to win: New research on union strategies. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Burawoy, M. (1976). The functions and reproduction of migrant labor: Comparative material from Southern Africa and the United States. American Journal of Sociology, 81, 1050–1087.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chastang, C. (1993). Janitors picket in Culver City. Los Angeles Times (February 15).

  • Clawson, D. (2003). The next upsurge: Labor and the new social movements. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cobble, D., (Ed.) (1993). Women and unions: Forging a partnership. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cobble, D. (2004). The other women’s movement: Workplace justice and social rights in modern America. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Collins, P. H. (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment. London, New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cranford, C. (2004). Gendered resistance: Organizing “Justice for Janitors” in Los Angeles. In J. Stanford & L. F. Vosko (Eds.), Challenging the market: The struggle to regulate work and income (pp. 309–329). Montreal, Kingston: McGill Queens University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cranford, C. (2005). Networks of exploitation: Immigrant labor and the restructuring of the Los Angeles janitorial industry. Social Problems, 52, 379–397.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cranford, C. (2007). ‘It’s time to leave machismo behind!’: Challenging gender inequality in an immigrant union. Gender & Society, 21, 409–438.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dalla Costa, M., & James, S. (1975). The power of women and the subversion of the community. Bristol: Falling Wall.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fantasia, R., & Voss, K. (2004). Hard work: Remaking the American labor movement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fisk, C. L., Mitchell, D., & Erickson, C. (2000). Union representation of immigrant janitors in Southern California: Economic and legal challenges. In R. Milkman (Ed.), Organizing immigrants: The challenge for unions in contemporary California (pp. 199–224). Ithaca, London: ILR Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • García, A. (Ed.) (1997). Chicana feminist thought: The basic historical writings. London, New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gardetta, D. (1993). True grit: Clocking time with janitors organizer Rocio Saenz. Los Angeles Weekly (July 30–August 5).

  • Glenn, E. N. (1992). From servitude to service work: Historical continuities in the racial division of paid reproductive labor. Signs, 18, 1–43.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hamilton, N., & Chinchilla, N. S. (2001). Seeking community in a global city: Guatemalans and Salvadorans in Los Angeles. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hartmann, H. (1976). Capitalism, patriarchy, and job segregation by sex. In M. Blaxall & B. Reagan (Eds.), Women and the workplace: The implication of occupational segregation (pp. 137–170). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hondagneu-Sotelo, P. (1994). Gendered transitions: Mexican experiences with immigration. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jelin, E. (Ed.) (1990). Women and social change in Latin America, translated by J. A. Zammit and M. Thomson. London, New Jersey: Zed Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Laslett, B., & Brenner, J. (1989). Gender and social reproduction: Historical perspectives. Annual Review of Sociology, 15, 381–404.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marx, K., & Engels, F. (Eds.) (2003). Capital: A critique of political economy. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

    Google Scholar 

  • May, M. (1985). Bread before roses: American workingmen, labor unions and the family wage. In R. Milkman (Ed.), Women, work and protest: A century of U.S. women’s labor history (pp. 1–21). London, New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Milkman, R. (1993). Union responses to workforce feminization in the United States. In J. Jenson & R. Mahon (Eds.), The challenges of restructuring (pp. 226–251). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Milkman, R., (Ed.) (2000). Organizing immigrants: The challenge for unions in Contemporary California. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Milkman, R., & Voss, K. (2004). Introduction. In R. Milkman & K. Voss (Eds.), Rebuilding labor: Organizing and organizers in the new union movement (pp. 1–16). Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Naples, N. (1998). Grassroots warriors: Activist mothering, community work and the war on poverty. London, New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nazario, S. (1993). For this union it’s war. Los Angeles Times (August 19, A1, A20).

  • Pardo, M. S. (1998). Mexican American women activists: Identity and resistance in two Los Angeles communities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ruiz, V. L. (1987). Cannery women, cannery lives: Mexican women, unionization, and the California food processing industry, 1930–1950. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sacks, K. B. (1988). Gender and grassroots leadership. In A. Bookman & S. Morgan (Eds.), Women and the politics of empowerment (pp. 77–96). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Satzewich, V. (1991). Racism and the incorporation of foreign labour: Farm labour migration to Canada since 1945. London, New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Savage, L. (1998). Geographies of organizing: Justice for Janitors in Los Angeles. In A. Herod (Ed.), Organizing the landscape: Geographical perspectives on labor unionism (pp. 225–252). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • SEIU. (1991). Acción y Justicia para los Janitors. Los Angeles: SEIU local 399 (December).

  • SEIU. (1992). Acción y Justicia para los Janitors. Los Angeles: SEIU local 399 (September).

  • SEIU. (1993). Acción y Justicia para los Janitors. Los Angeles: SEIU local 399 (March).

  • Turner, L., Katz, H., & Hurd, R. (Eds.) (2001). Rekindling the movement: Labor’s quest for 21st century relevance. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vosko, L. (2002). Rethinking feminization: Gendered precariousness in the Canadian labor market and the crisis in social reproduction. Toronto: Annual Robarts Lecture York University.

  • Waldinger, R., Erickson, C., Milkman, R., Mitchell, D. J. B., Valenzuela, A., Wong, K. et al. (1998). Helots no more: A case study of the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles. In K. Bronfenbrenner, S. Friedman, R. Hurd, R. Oswald & R. Seeber (Eds.), Organizing to win: New research on union strategies (pp. 102–120). Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wial, H. (1993). The emerging organizational structure of unionism in low-wage services. Rutgers Law Review, 45, 671–738.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wilton, R., & Cranford, C. (2002). Toward an understanding of the spatiality of social movements: Labor organizing at a private university in Los Angeles. Social Problems, 47, 374–394.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank, Rob Wilton, Maria Schmeeckle, Anna Korteweg, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, John Krinsky and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on previous versions of these papers. I also thank the janitors and union staff who participated in this study. All interpretations are my own.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Cynthia J. Cranford.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Cranford, C.J. Constructing Union Motherhood: Gender and Social Reproduction in the Los Angeles “Justice for Janitors” Movement. Qual Sociol 30, 361–381 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-007-9080-y

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-007-9080-y

Keywords

  • Gender
  • Social reproduction
  • Labor movement
  • Unions
  • Latina/o immigrants