The dissident Tennessee legislators who were willing to get thrown out of the House have demonstrated exactly the kind of stance that we need our elected officials to have. Disruption is not the opposite of political pragmatism; it’s essential to being effective.

By Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs

I recently interviewed a legendary labor organizer, Jono Shaffer, who was instrumental in the decades-long Justice for Janitors campaign. Justice For Janitors’ success was remarkable, because they were working in unbelievably hostile conditions. Everything was stacked against them. First, they started during the late ‘80s, a particularly bad time for American labor. Second, the Los Angeles janitors that Shaffer was working with were largely undocumented immigrants who worked for private cleaning contractors. Their immigration status meant that the workers had a lot to lose by challenging their employers, and the fact that their employers were contractors meant that even if a group of janitors had succeeded at getting a union at the company they worked for, the building owner could have just fired the cleaning company and gotten a non-union one instead.

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And yet J4J succeeded in getting huge gains for janitors in the building services industry in Los Angeles. There were, in Shaffer’s explanation, a few reasons for that. One reason is that instead of trying to organize at particular cleaning companies, they had a strategy that targeted those who ultimately held power—the building owners. But J4J was also creative in its tactics, and was willing to be confrontational and disruptive. They staged massive street protests, and won huge public sympathy when a J4J protest was attacked by the LAPD. They got media attention that raised public visibility of the dire working conditions of LA janitors, and that public visibility translated into pressure on building owners. Shaffer told me that even actions that might appear to have been “stunts” (he once went to a building manager’s office dressed as Santa Claus to deliver rubber gloves, to highlight the company’s denial of basic safety equipment to its cleaning staff) were actually important because they helped the public understand what the issues were and turned mass opinion against the owners.

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