‘The Janitors’ by John H. Fleming from Industrial Pioneer. Vol. 1 No. 11. December, 1921.

Thomas Lawrence, janitor at the Citizens Telephone Co., Columbus, Ohio, ca. 1910.
‘The Janitors’ by John H. Fleming from Industrial Pioneer. Vol. 1 No. 11. December, 1921.

THE two last conventions of the A. F. of L. have given special attention to the condition of the janitors, or— to use the more pretentious phraseology of the Gompersonian clan— “the men and women engaged in the maintenance of buildings.” So far, those efforts have met with no appreciable results. No new international has been formed to swell the already too large number of crafts through which the efforts of American labor are frittered away. The field organizers report a well denned dislike or a decided indifference in the matter of organization.

To a large extent, this is due to the incapacity and ignorance of the professionals of the A. F. of L. machine and their lack of familiarity with the status of this class of workers. Also, the distrust of the A. F. of L. by those whom it contemptuously dubs as semi-skilled or unskilled has rendered its appeal ineffective.

The Facts of the Job.

To organize a class of workers one must have a clear conception of the reason of their existence and the economic conditions that created them. The man who starts out from the old and outworn notion of handicraft is unable to understand the why and the how of a category of workers which owes its existence to the very thing that has destroyed the importance of craft in production: the machine process.

The janitor is the direct result of the machinization of the production of one of the three main requirements of human life: food, shelter and clothing. The application of the machine process to the providing of shelter made the individual home inefficient in all instances and frequently a luxury. The mechanization of the human dwelling brought into being the various types of collective and communal dwellings known as flats, apartment houses, multiple lodgings, resident hotels, rooming houses, etc. Under the handicraft method of production, men provided their own shelter. Under the more complex conditions of machine production, they buy or rent shelter. The providing of shelter thus ceases to be a function of the home to become a new branch of industry organized for profit: the shelter industry. The janitor is a wage-worker of this new branch of industry.

In a general and indefinite sense, all persons connected with the upkeep and maintenance of buildings are janitors. In a more precise way, a janitor is the man responsible to the owner for the upkeep of the building with its heating, power and lighting plants, if any. In large buildings division of labor leads to specialization and the janitor is associated in his work with such specialists as engineers, electricians, vacuum men, scrubbers, elevator operators, room cleaners, housemen, porters, etc.

The Development of Shelter.

During the early stages of the “shelter” industry, the owner is frequently the manager and the janitor lives in close association with his employer. As the accumulated fortunes and mass production causes the buildings to grow larger, the owner ceases to be a useful factor and abandons the building entirely to hired men, satisfied with appropriating the profits on the strength of his property title.

Since the industry is a recent one, we find today side by side with the larger office buildings and apartment houses intermediate types of technical and economic shelter developments, efficient in the same measure as they are less obsolete. In all those various types of buildings and business enterprises an increasing number of workers is employed under special conditions. Frequently they reside on the job and the character of their work as labor of attendance makes it exceedingly hard to confine them strictly to a basic working day.

Janitors’ Conditions.

Henry, janitor of the University of Michigan’s Dental School, 1897.

The nature of the work does not lend itself to regulated hours. The janitor frequently has a twenty-four hour a day job, being called upon in cases of emergency at any hour of the day or night. The wages are small because there is a presumption on the part of the owners that special services to the tenants call for tips and because the refuse of modern life is a commodity with a saleable value which gives the janitor a chance to eke out his scanty pay through the sale of waste paper, bottles, rags, old clothing, etc.

As far as the nature of his work is concerned, the janitor is neither an engineer, nor a fireman, nor a plumber, nor an electrician, nor a steamfitter, nor a painter in the craft sense of the term, although in fact he is all of these with a few more qualifications thrown in for good measure. The janitor is a composite of many trades and his status improves with the technical development and equipment of the building. The janitor of the Pacific Coast, whose heating plant is equipped for oil burning, gets higher wages than his Chicago fellow worker, who only shovels coal into a furnace.

As the janitor becomes more efficient in his work, he comes into conflict with the various craftsmen of the organized trades. Painted walls in a large traffic building cannot be kept clean by being washed. They are maintained in good condition by being “touched up,” which is only another way of saying that the building is being constantly repainted on the installment plan. Thus the necessity for periodical general repainting, the uncontested domain of the craftsman painter, disappears.

The Janitor and the Craft Union.

The same could be said about several other sides of the janitor’s work, which lead to a direct conflict with the organized crafts. The main purpose of the A. F. of L. in its attempt to organize the janitors was not to improve the condition of the latter. The labor aristocracy of the A. F. of L. does not care a rap for the unskilled janitor. The purpose of the craft unionists is to protect their own vested rights and craft monopoly and to get the consent of the janitors themselves to reduce them to the level of a watchman sweeping a few stairs, cleaning some halls and rendering a few small personal services to the tenants.

Through the nature of his work, the janitor— like all those whose occupation is a direct result of the machine process in industry—is not amenable to craft organization. It is a well known fact that in all the newer occupations derived from the machine process and therefore not susceptible of organization along craft lines, the artificial fostering of such a form of organization will, at its best, only create petty grafters and social parasites who, as a rule, become an easy mark for the capitalist, whenever he deems it advisable to suppress them.

The Janitor and Industrial Unionism.

The collective dwelling has created the janitor, and he is going to develop with it regardless of the attitude of various crafts bent on maintaining a selfish and unjustified monopoly. Industrial organization centered around the job, a practical application of the one big union idea, is what the men and women engaged in building maintenance want and what the A. F. of L. cannot give them.

In no other phase of present day life is there such a basic necessity for solidarity. The building tends more and more to become an autonomous unit, a kind of enlarged but self-contained home. Its only weak spot is its supplies, its heat, light, fuel, ice and food. From that point of view, the largest and most up-to-date building is leading a hand to mouth existence. Here is an urgent demand for solidarity in quick-acting practical form. Shut off the supply and the building becomes worthless as a revenue producer.

The janitors want an organization that transcends the narrow confines of organized craft selfishness. Only the I.W.W. can give it to them.

The Industrial Pioneer was published monthly by Industrial Workers of the World’s General Executive Board in Chicago from 1921 to 1926 taking over from One Big Union Monthly when its editor, John Sandgren, was replaced for his anti-Communism, alienating the non-Communist majority of IWW. The Industrial Pioneer declined after the 1924 split in the IWW, in part over centralization and adherence to the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) and ceased in 1926.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/industrial-pioneer/Industrial%20Pioneer%20(December%201921).pdf

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