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Urban Farm Workers: A History of the Justice for Janitors Campaign as an Adaptive Response to Neoliberal Restructuring and Union Decline

  • Author(s): Fairchild, Stephanie
  • Advisor(s): Gutiérrez, David G.
  • et al.
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In this dissertation, I explore the broad history of the Justice for Janitors campaign. I start with the origins of the campaign in a series of organizing and reform experiments at three different levels of the United States labor movement in the early 1980s, and I end with an exploration of the legacy of this campaign and an open source approach to unionism within both the U.S. and global labor movements in the 2010s. I place the campaign in the context of neoliberal restructuring and a much longer pattern of capitalist development and exploitation. In doing so, I demonstrate that the Justice for Janitors campaign was a response to two intertwined developments in the second half of the twentieth century. These are: (1) the intense exploitation and escalating inequality that U.S. workers experience amidst neoliberal restructuring and (2) the ongoing decline of union density in the United States, which predated but escalated amidst neoliberal restructuring. I highlight, however, that the response that JfJ offered to these two developments was experimental, adaptive, and rife with tensions.

I argue that the experimental, adaptive nature of the campaign was Justice for Janitors’ core source of strength and endurance. Campaign leaders and participants’ commitment to experimentation and adaptation allowed Justice for Janitors to persevere in the face of immense external hostility, internal struggles, and failures. More than this, a commitment to experimentation and adaptation allowed campaign leaders and participants to capitalize on moments of success and to expand and escalate Justice for Janitors not just as a janitor organizing drive but as a powerful, intersectional struggle against the effects of neoliberal restructuring and union decline. This expansion and escalation, I argue, spurred significant reform throughout the SEIU and the United States labor movement as a whole. It also empowered and inspired a generation of workers and social movement activists to take a stand against growing socioeconomic polarization and inequality.

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This item is under embargo until June 19, 2020.