Abstract: The Making of the Chicagoan Janitorial Class

Benjamin L. Peterson


Beginning in the 1910s, the janitors of Chicago used a combination of organizing and political power to radically improve their place in the city's political economy. Organized by the Building Service Employees International Union (BSEIU), the janitors of Chicago transformed from being what the press called little more than "serfs" to being key players in municipal and national politics However, their ability to control and improve their jobs was controversial. Many complained that unionized janitors had unfairly used their political influence to glorify their humble jobs. To combat this the union deployed a rhetoric of professionalism that, while not entirely successful at quelling criticism, reshaped the self-perceptions of the city's building service workers.