News: Janitors Moving Ahead

Union campaign aims at industry-wide contract

Sean Hughes

Janitors are winning union recognition, according to organizer Matt Ryan (second from left).

The Greater Cincinnati Justice for Janitors campaign has made important strides in talks with major janitorial companies, some of which have agreed to begin a process of recognizing the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and contract negotiations.

Janitors will now be able to unionize without fear of retaliation and negotiate with companies for living wages and affordable health care, according to Matt Ryan, lead organizer for SEIU Local 3. After a year and a half of rallying, demonstrations and negotiations, a majority of Cincinnati's janitorial companies are now at various stages of bargaining with the SEIU, he says. He declined to name the companies until contracts are signed.

Earlier in the campaign, many workers faced reprisals for attempting to organize a union and two-dozen workers were fired for trying to do so, Ryan says. The agreement for union recognition will create an amicable process for workers to freely unionize without retaliation or threats, he says.

"We hope to achieve a contract that puts people on a pathway to fair living wages," Ryan says. "It's not going to be easy, but if people come together, we will be successful."

'Cutthroat race'
Justice for Janitors, highlighted in a recent Time article, began nationally in 1985 and has been successful in many cities, including Boston and Pittsburgh. Full-time janitors in Pittsburgh can earn up to $12.52 an hour with health insurance and other benefits, according to SEIU.

The average janitor in Cincinnati, however, makes around $7 an hour, working part-time and with no benefits to speak of, Ryan says. This causes many Cincinnati janitors to work two to three other jobs just to get by.

"The (Time article) has been a source of inspiration to see people further paying attention," Ryan says. "It really calls the question on Cincinnati: This is what's going on. Will we figure out how to make this work and make a change?"

Competition in the janitorial industry pushes down wages and benefits.

"The industry is designed to drive down wages and labor standards," Ryan says. "It's a very cutthroat race to the bottom, where contractors bid against one another to win contracts from building owners and building managers. If one guy is offering a living wage and health care, and the other guy says 'I can do that for less workers and less pay,' the only concern is sweeping out as much profit as possible."

Justice for Janitors, which has brought together almost 1,000 Cincinnati janitors, recently held two rallies downtown to bring the city's attention to the campaign's progress and its ongoing struggle. On July 15 the group kicked off its first contract campaign.

A week later, July 22, an additional rally, held simultaneously with a UNITE HERE convention of laundry and food service workers, criticized janitorial contractor Blue Chip 2000. Blue Chip is one of the few janitorial contractors in the city that has refused to cooperate with Justice for Janitors, Ryan says.

"While all the janitors have come together, there is still a company that will not return phone calls, that will not be open to a fair process, and that is Blue Chip," he says.

The July 22 rally ended in front of the Convergys building, whose building manager hires Blue Chip to clean the facility. Among those at the rally were Dan Radford, secretary-treasurer of the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, civil rights leader the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and UNITE HERE General President Bruce Raynor.

"This is a beautiful building (Convergys)," Raynor said. "There's lots of money to be made in this building. So why should the people who clean it not make enough for a living? I want to send a message to Blue Chip: to hell with Blue Chip!"

Blue Chip's attorney, Joe Gruber, declined to discuss the criticism.

"Blue Chip has no comment at this point," he says. "We have taken their calls and we have returned their calls, but we will not battle them in the press."

Negotiate or leave
For many Cincinnati janitors, the movement isn't just about respect but also about survival. DeeDee Tillman, a 49-year-old janitor for Professional Maintenance, is a diabetic. The health care provided by Professional Maintenance would take up her entire two-week paycheck, so Tillman relies on samples from hospitals for medicine, she says.

"I just can't explain how hard it is for each of us," she says.

If Tillman misses a day of work, a quarter is deducted from her hourly pay through an entire week. Other buildings cut as much as $1 from hourly pay for a week, according to Ryan.

Having participated in the movement for the past three months, Tillman has already seen great strides.

"People aren't scared to fight anymore," she says. "They are not afraid to speak out. Before they would worry that they would lose their jobs if they signed a union card. If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. I want (janitors) to know who's behind them. If they don't come out, they can't win."

Radford sees the movement as beneficial to families and communities.

"I have observed over the years that when you have decent jobs and decent businesses, crime goes down in certain areas," he says. "More attention can be given to family values and to really make sure that this next generation fits directly into the improvements of our city and our community."

Ryan agrees, noting that many janitors come from the underprivileged areas of Cincinnati such as Over-the-Rhine, West End and Price Hill.

"We all recognize that this is a poverty-wage industry and the janitors have offered a plan and a proven way to do something about that and make a real change that will impact not just them ... but really impact the neighborhoods where most janitors come from," Ryan says.

While no dates have been set, Ryan hopes negotiations for an industry-wide union contract will begin in the fall. For Ryan, this might be one of the last rounds in the fight for living wages. Looking at nearly 30 other cities that have already successfully organized and created a contract, he sees the transition coming soon.

"In terms of just creating more stability in the workforce, less turnover and the impact that it has on janitors and their families is tremendous," Ryan says. "Down here in Cincinnati, we're transitioning from the movement campaign to a contract campaign."

Radford says most people in the city want janitors to have fair wages and health care, which will leave those refusing to compromise, such as Blue Chip, behind.

"This community will demand that they get on board and treat their employees right, or they're going to be encouraged to move out of the city," he says. "You cannot have one or the other. This is an industry standard, and if Blue Chip doesn't want to abide to what others have accepted, they should leave."

Ryan sees success ahead.

"I'm confident that this is going to happen," he says. "If it takes another six months or six years, janitors are going to stick around and make this happen. What I hear is 'We will do whatever it takes to improve these jobs,' because the stakes are that high for working families in Cincinnati." ©

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