Vellon: 'We don't stop organizing.'
After two-and-a-half years in Cincinnati, where he helped unionize that city's janitorial industry, labor organizer Manuel Vellon is back in Madison, where he was raised.
Vellon's employer, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), is North America's fastest-growing union, with more than 1.9 million members. Vellon became involved with SEIU in 2003, while employed at the Concourse Hotel in Madison.
As an organizer for SEIU's local chapter, Vellon, 29, will spend the next several months helping the union's effort to put Barack Obama into the White House. He recently spoke with The Daily Page about labor's new momentum and his fight for workers' rights.
The Daily Page: Tell us about your victory in Cincinnati.
Vellon: The janitors who work in downtown Cincinnati work in these huge corporate offices. The janitors clean these offices worth billions of dollars and that money is not trickling down. They don't have health care. They don't get a raise in so many years, no representation whatsoever. In order to get the union in, to get it to work, you've got to look at the janitorial industry and how it works.
The janitorial industry is a cutthroat industry. They underbid one another on these really huge accounts. That's what drives down the wages. To ensure that janitors get benefits and a raise is to make sure that we have all of janitorial companies on the same page so we can do it in a way that makes sense for everyone.
We had to fight to get these major companies that didn't want to be a part of it. There were a couple of companies out there were hard to get on board. We got the collective bargaining agreement by picketing, through civil disobedience, leafleting, going to events.
What incentives are there for the majors to jump aboard?
For one, you'll have peace with your janitors. Peace with labor. We're not going to go away. SEIU is the fastest growing union in American and they see that.
Unions don't seem as powerful as they once were. Is this your sense?
In the 1980s and 1990s, the membership just wasn't going up. I don't think there was enough emphasis on organizing. Back then, it was holding on to membership. You had an old-school mentality that kept thinking old school.
But since the mid-1980s, SEIU has emphasized organizing. We realized the only way to win anything is by organizing and growing, by maintaining momentum. We don't stop organizing. If we're going to organize the janitors, let's organize the security guards. If we're going to organize the security guards, let's organize the homecare workers.
Now other unions are looking at our model and saying, "This is what we need to do to survive." The movement is on the go again, but you're also seeing politicians getting behind it, backing the minimum wage, protecting workers' rights.
How has the Internet helped kick unions into gear?
It's made it easier to learn about unions and see what we've been able to do. For folks who maybe are afraid of asking questions about how to organize, they can look it up online. They can also learn about the history of the labor movement and the victories we've had and who's been backing us up along the way. And with YouTube, we've had a lot of our demonstrations and rallies and workers' stories online. But it always comes back to the workers.
Last year, 5,000 janitors in Houston won a huge contract. Janitors down there were making $5.15 an hour. No benefits. And they won the union after going on a huge strike that lasted about a month. It came down to companies saying, "We'll give you the union, but no raise for the next three years." So they took it to the streets and they won, in a red state.
What prevents companies from hiring scab workers?
One thing that prevents them is that there'd be hundreds of janitors outside of the building, every day. We have that momentum, the community support, politicians, the faith-community leaders behind the cause, and we'd have that presence everyday. Eventually, they want to make it go away. But how does it go away? They've got to go union.
What's on the horizon for '08?
Organize, organize, organize! That's it. We need to get workers to realize their rights.