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Inter Pares

Justice for Janitors (D.C.)

Contributed by

When: 1994—1995
Where: Washington, D.C.

In 1994, after ten years of organizing, the Janitors Union in Washington, D.C., had only organized about twenty percent of the commercial real estate buildings downtown — not nearly enough to put upward pressure on wages in the sector. A change in strategy was required. Over the next two years, Justice for Janitors organized a series of creative escalating actions weaving together corporate campaigns, worker organizing, community support and direct actions, called Days of Rage. Within the year, 5,000 janitors — ninety percent of the D.C. market — were unionized and had won wage hikes and benefits. It was a huge victory. Justice for Janitors had hit upon one of the most successful union organizing strategies in recent U.S. history, and the Days of Rage model has been repeated in many places since then.

The model requires several key components: 1) a visibility campaign designed to permeate the collective consciousness, 2) strategic research and campaign planning to create a map and calendar of opportunities, and 3) creative and escalating direct actions focused on a clear target. Combined, these elements help create a political crisis that forces the opponent to either resolve the issues or lose standing in the community.

“D.C. Has Carr Trouble” was our main slogan in December of 1994. Oliver Carr was the biggest commercial real estate owner in D.C. and we thought our little pun creative, given how traffic was sure to be impacted by our bridge-blockading actions. We blocked buildings and parking garages of key real estate giants, took over lobbies and the streets, and got arrested throughout the week.

In March we went to the homes of real estate moguls and blocked the roads to the Capitol building by erecting mock houses in traffic lanes. Then we simultaneously took over the City Council Chambers, the office of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and disrupted Congress from the House Gallery right after the morning prayer, demanding that the wealthy pay their fair share.

September culminated in a massive action shutting down a major bridge from Virginia into D.C. In the middle of the highway, hundreds of janitors erected a classroom, complete with desks and chalk boards. We also parked a school bus and a school van across all four lanes, effectively closing the bridge.

When called out for blocking the bridges, SEIU President John Sweeney replied: “I believe in building bridges whenever [we can] be a full partner with our employers and a full citizen of the communities we live in. But I believe in blocking bridges whenever those employers and those communities turn a deaf ear to the working families we represent.”

The September actions had an impact beyond our expectations. Some Cabinet members couldn’t commute in. Flights were delayed at Reagan National Airport and the Senate had to delay votes. Needless to say, it was soon made a felony to block a bridge in D.C. Meanwhile, though, we had captured the hearts and minds of people in D.C. for whom janitors were no longer invisible.

The Janitors for Justice creative direct action model of organizing has been used again and again to great success, including the series of street actions in New York during the week of May 12, 2011, which to some degree set the stage for Occupy Wall Street and the growing movement against Big Banking.

Why it worked

Hundreds of people were willing to use their bodies to take and hold space. Mobility, flexibility and good research were critical, and so was working with allies. The escalating actions created a political crisis. The city could no longer tolerate what was happening, so they had to intervene, creating a political settlement in which the janitors won!

Key Tactic at work


With those risking arrest in the front, slow cars behind and blockade vehicles in the middle, we shut down numerous bridges. Mobile teams known as “flying squads” were key, as was having a committed group of people who showed up every day to be trained and participate in creative actions and social disruption. By concentrating that level of participation and commitment over a specific period in a specific geographic zone, we created the kind of sociopolitical crisis needed to effect real change.

Key Principle at work

Escalate strategically

Building a campaign to win requires escalation over time, leading to a moment of compression and crisis. You have to start simply, keep training and building people’s confidence so that they take yet more radical steps and courageous actions.

Maintain nonviolent discipline

If you are going to build a political crisis using a committed minority, nonviolent discipline is critical.

Anger works best when you have the moral high ground

If you are going to block a bridge and inconvenience thousands, people must understand what’s at stake. You need to illustrate the depth of your commitment and passion for a just solution. You can then channel the resulting public anger to help solve the problem: If you are pissed about this inconvenience, we are sorry, but call the mayor and demand that he resolve these issues!

Lisa Fithian has organized since 1975, weaving together strategic creative nonviolent actions, anti-oppression work and sustainable practices in student, environmental justice, workers rights and peace and global justice struggles. Whether it was shutting down the CIA, White House, Supreme Court or the WTO or working on Justice of Janitors, Camp Casey, Common Ground Relief or Wall Street banks, Lisa has supported tens of thousands of people in accessing their power and gaining the experience and skills they need to fight for justice, no matter how great or small the cause. Her website chronicles much of her work and offers great resources.

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