By COLIN STAUB
When a handful of Portland theater janitors chartered a new union local in 1922, they ended up laying the groundwork for a labor organization that would spend the next hundred years fighting for workers in hospitals, airports, woolen mills and more.
Half a dozen workers signed the original charter for Janitors and Elevator Operators Local 49 on Jan. 16, 1922, affiliating as a local of the Building Service Employees International Union. On Dec. 3, their labor union—now Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49—will celebrate its 100 year anniversary.
It’s a history that began in Portland’s performance venues. Photos from the union’s early years show members picketing outside the Bagdad Theater on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, and the (since-demolished) Circle Theater on Southwest Fourth Avenue.
By 1927, Local 49 had organized theater janitors across the city, and the union bargained a master contract covering them all.
Moving into health care
Local 49’s first major expansion came alongside World War II and Portland’s shipbuilding industry. The three Portland-area Kaiser shipyards brought workers to the region in the early 1940s, and company owner Henry Kaiser established the Kaiser Permanente health system to provide medical care for his shipyard workers. In 1945, Local 49 began representing Kaiser hospital workers who were maids, orderlies, nurses’ aides and kitchen workers. More Kaiser workers joined Local 49 in the years that followed, and Kaiser today remains the largest employer of Local 49 members, with 4,000 workers.
There were few legal protections for health care workers unionizing: The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 specifically excluded nonprofit health care workers from the National Labor Relations Act, and they wouldn’t be brought back in until 1974. That didn’t stop workers from organizing. In 1952, service workers at Emanuel and Good Samaritan hospitals (now part of Legacy Health) began a strike for union recognition. They picketed and ran a boycott of the hospitals, supported by other Portland-area unions. It took nearly two years, but workers won recognition, a union contract, a 40-hour work week and a 10% raise.
Justice for Janitors
Local 49 continued to grow with Kaiser. Bess Kaiser Hospital opened in North Portland in 1959, staffed by Local 49 members. So was Kaiser Sunnyside, which opened in 1975. The union also organized similar workers at Astoria’s Columbia Memorial Hospital, Albany General Hospital, and PeaceHealth in Longview. At Reed College, janitors unionized. Local 49 even organized pin-setters at Portland-area bowling alleys.
But by the 1980s, unions were under attack nationwide, and Local 49 saw its workplaces shifting: In-house janitorial jobs were being cut in favor of nonunion subcontractors, who typically paid lower wages and offered few or no benefits. And the nonunion janitorial jobs were increasingly filled by immigrant workers from Central America and Mexico.
But just like the janitors who founded Local 49 in the 1920s, a new generation of janitors took action. SEIU in 1990 launched a national campaign called Justice for Janitors, aiming to raise working standards and wages. In the early 2000s, Local 49 staged marches and identified buildings in Portland that weren’t cleaned by union contractors.
The campaign had definite success: Downtown Portland janitorial union density, which Local 49 measures by square footage of property being cleaned, increased from under 50% to the current rate of about 80%. Union janitors cleaning downtown Portland office buildings make at least $17.25 per hour, and have paid time off and access to a health care plan.
The year 2001 was a major turning point for Local 49. Andy Stern, then SEIU International president, placed the local in trusteeship on Jan. 19, 2001, and appointed longtime SEIU Local 503 executive director Alice Dale to take charge of the union. During the trusteeship, members ratified updates to the union constitution, and approved a dues increase. Dale promoted a plan for building a stronger union. A big part of it would be new organizing, with 20% of union dues dedicated to bringing in new members.
When the trusteeship ended in 2002, Dale was elected president of the local. She continued to serve as president until she moved to Switzerland in 2009. Meg Niemi, who was then organizing director, was appointed to succeed Dale as Local 49 president, and has been reelected periodically ever since.
Since 2001, Local 49 has tripled in size, from 5,000 to 15,000 members, bucking the national trend of declining union membership during the same period. Major increases included:
2009 Workers United merged with SEIU, and 950 workers joined Local 49 from a diverse group of workplaces including Pendleton Woolen Mills, Xerox and Aramark.
2010 600 security officers from contractors including G4S and ABM joined.
2015 260 passenger service assistants at Portland International Airport joined.
2015 1,000 workers at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart in Springfield joined.