Theater janitors on strike

by Gail Sullivan

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, p. 72
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

Some people think the best thing at the movies these days is the popcorn and the other snackbar treats. Considering Hollywood's latest offerings, they may well be right. Although the price of tickets has skyrocketed, it is a well known fact that theater owners have always depended on their sales at the snackbar to make a profit.

Apart from profits, however, the most tangible indication that anyone was in the theater is the trash in the aisles. For the workers who clean up the mess it's a dirty job, but it provides a living. Depending on the size of the theater, a janitor sweeps, mops, vacuums, and cleans all the restrooms in a three or six hour shift.

This August, the 250 member Theater and Amusement Janitors, Local 9 (SEIU) asked for a 9% raise to keep pace with the rising cost of living. Although all the other theaters have signed agreements with the union, the Syufy Enterprises and the multinational United Artists have refused to sign. Unable to reach agreement, the janitors walked out of these chains' nine area theaters on September 29. UA and Syufy have joined forces to break the union. Both chains have hired teenagers at the minimum wage to replace the strikers and still refuse to meet with the union. "This is an attack on unionism," says Business Agent Sal Roselli. "The only way we're going to win this strike is to get support of the people — the people who attend the theaters."

Local 9 has been cleaning movie houses and theaters in San Francisco since 1902. Their last strike, also against UA, was twelve years ago. It lasted fourteen months. Despite their size, the union got a big show of support in November when several hundred community and trade union members, including Teamsters, Culinary Workers, and ILWU members, rallied in front of several of the struck theaters. Since that time, various progressive groups have "adopted" a theater and help out the janitors by doing picket duty.

Although the local media has completely ignored the union and its strike, Local 9 is encouraged by these acts of solidarity and is currently seeking support from various Bay Area Labor Councils to initiate a boycott of the theater chains. There is more to a movie than a good story and popcorn.