Cleaning House

Janitors strike against New York City-based company contracted by local Fortune 500 companies to clean their buildings


f Chenicka Lynn had a choice, she wouldn’t need to be on food stamps. 

She wouldn’t be on food stamps and she would have spent Halloween night trick-or-treating with her four children.  

Instead, she stood with them in the rain outside of the Fourth and Vine building downtown where she works a 40-hour week as a janitor, striking against what she and more than 60 of her Greater Cincinnati union members and co-workers have described as threats and intimidation from their multi-billion-dollar employer, ABM, in response to requests for better pay, fair hours and access to health care. 

New York City-based ABM, which reported $4.3 billion in revenue in 2012, is one of the nation’s largest providers of commercial maintenance and cleaning services for clients across the country. In Cincinnati, it services a number of the city’s Fortune 500 offices, including PNC, Macy’s, Procter & Gamble and Fifth Third Bancorp. ABM is the middle man — corporations contract ABM for cleaning services, and ABM hires the janitors who clean the corporations’ offices. 

Conveniently, that also means that the corporations whose offices janitors like Lynn clean every day — who often receive hefty tax incentives to stay headquartered in Cincinnati — have no tangible responsibility to or relationship with the workers who keep their offices operational and professional. That’s largely a practicality issue — it’s easier for a multi-tenant building to pass off cleaning responsibilities for the whole building to one entity rather than each business, for example, having a separate janitorial staff on payroll. But that distance — and ABM’s lack of obligation to the city of Cincinnati and its economy — has brought the company tremendous ire from its employees and community leaders who are critical of ABM’s employee treatment.  

Lynn, 33, has been an ABM employee for almost eight years. She remembers earning $8.50 an hour when she started in 2006 and now makes $9.80 an hour for her full-time workweek. The pay increases over time haven’t quite kept up with inflation — she’s actually 7 cents behind the $9.87 an hour she would be earning had her 2006 wage been adjusted for inflation. She says she’s the only full-time janitor working in the 31-story Fourth and Vine building; the rest work part-time. 

Those issues are at the core of the quarrel between ABM and members of a local chapter of Service Employees International Union (SEIU Local 1) like Lynn, who have been engaged in negotiations turned brawls for more than a year.

On Thursday, Oct. 31, ABM janitors went on strike against the company. ABM’s contract with Cincinnati’s SEIU Local 1 employees expired last October, and official negotiations were halted shortly thereafter when SEIU and ABM failed to mediate terms for a new contract. Since then, SEIU members have endured harassment and threats at work following their requests for a new agreement, says Leslie Mendoza Kamstra, communications director for SEIU Local 1. 

According to Mendoza Kamstra, the protests in Cincinnati spurred from news of altercations in Columbus, where several ABM protestors were recently arrested during a nonviolent act of civil disobedience. Central Ohio SEIU workers are also lobbying for a new contract, but ABM stopped negotiations on Sept. 30. 

According to SEIU Local 1, most of ABM’s full-time janitors are paid less than $18,000 a year, and the company has come under scrutiny across the Midwest for its support of a new business model that would shift to a largely part-time workforce, slashing incomes and depriving employees of access to ABM health care, at which point many will be paid so little they qualify for government assistance just to get by. Even though Lynn works full-time, she still relies on food stamps to support her family every month. 

Councilman Chris Seelbach attributes corporations’ aloof attitudes toward low-wage employees like Lynn for a slew of problems in Cincinnati — particularly the absence of a robust working middle class. Seelbach says having a working middle class “would change everything” by increasing the amount of self-sustainable taxpayers who can finance city services such as police and fireighters. 

SEIU Local 1’s Mendoza Kamstra says workers are calling on ABM to be a “good neighbor” to Cincinnati by providing local workers with the hours, pay and benefits they need to survive and flourish. But, according to the city’s Office of Economic Development, ABM isn’t receiving tax incentives to operate in Cincinnati, so maintaining the city’s economic vitality isn’t exactly a priority of theirs. 

Seelbach says the city’s best leverage against companies like ABM is rallying public opinion and encouraging local corporations contracting ABM’s services who do have a stake in Cincinnati’s economic vitality — and the power to work with a different service provider — to urge ABM to be a better steward for its employees. “These aren’t companies that are barely surviving. These are billion-dollar companies,” he says. 

The city of Cincinnati has more Fortune 500 companies per capita than Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, but one in three Cincinnatians live in poverty. That number skyrockets to more than 50 percent when looking at the child poverty rate in the city. 

According to the National Housing Conference, 2013 fair market for a two-bedroom apartment is $740, which requires an annual income of $29,600 to afford. The Cincinnati area’s median salary for janitors is $24,453, and that’s almost $6,000 above what full-time ABM janitors claim to make annually. 

Chas Strong, who manages corporate communications for ABM, sent CityBeat a statement the company issued to its clients months ago on the negotiations, which denies any allegations of threats or intimidation. 

Lynn has returned to work in hopes that the publicity will urge ABM to change its conduct, but she’s ready to return to the picket line if that’s what it takes. 

“It’s all about me trying to show my four kids what to stand up for, when to stand up for it and they already see the struggle I go through every day,” she says. ©

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