Rally calls for living wage, benefits for Indy’s janitors
Solidarity was the watchword at last Wednesday’s Justice for Janitors interfaith and community rally on Monument Circle. Religious groups, activists, janitors and a state representative pledged to stand with Indianapolis janitors as they organize for a living wage and benefits.
In the heart of a city where janitors face retaliation if they agitate for improved wages and working conditions, Wednesday’s event was a resounding battle cry. Over 300 people, many sporting purple union T-shirts, turned out for an hour of prayers, marching, songs and speeches. Part raucous protest, part revival meeting, the faith-based rally gave voice to the struggle of hardworking people denied their basic rights.
The Rev. Darren Cushman-Wood of Speedway United Methodist Church set the tone, saying, “We come here today to denounce economic segregation. Is it not too much to ask that janitors in Indianapolis earn a living wage? Is it not too much to ask that janitors in Indianapolis have access to affordable health care?” Janitors also deserve a voice in the workplace and full-time steady employment, Wood continued.
Speaker after speaker echoed the call for justice. Community activist Kim Tillman, wife of fired janitor Darnale Tillman, described employers’ treatment of service workers who often work in areas where “they can’t even afford to eat.”
The Rev. Dick Hamm, former general minister and president of Disciples of Christ, brought the disparities home by contrasting the janitors’ lot with those of CEOs. “There’s something wrong when a person is working full-time and still living under the poverty line at $15,000 a year,” he said, noting that CEOs typically bring home some $14 million in compensation while increasing their profits by “moving to places where there is no voice for labor.”
“We must act for justice because capitalism does not guarantee justice,” he said, calling for an end to exploitation of service workers.
The Tillmans have seven children, and recently Darnale was fired from national janitorial company Executive Management Services after he began organizing for better wages. At $7.25 an hour, his biweekly paycheck came to $310. EMS employees clean offices at 10 W. Market St., Indianapolis Power and Light and the Indiana Farm Bureau, among others.
According to Darnale Tillman, most janitors cannot afford reliable transportation. For many, even bus fare is prohibitive, and they must bike or walk to and from work. He spoke of one worker who bikes 42 miles round trip to work in Market Tower.
Tillman and other janitors also cited lack of training and inadequate safety and cleaning equipment to do their jobs. For example, Sandra Jones, who works for EMS at $7.75 an hour, said she receives only eight pairs of gloves a day to clean 13 floors.
Though no longer an EMS employee, Tillman is still in the fight, encouraging the janitors who work there to stand up for their rights. “We have the power to change our working situations and build stronger communities,” he said.
A large contingent of Cincinnati janitors lent their voices to the cause. Their presence was made more powerful by the fact that they recently won higher wages, more work hours and health insurance in their first-ever citywide union contract.
Janitor Raquel Baca spoke of this hopeful development, saying through a translator, “Cincinnati did it. Now it’s our turn!” Her speech ended with “Si, se puede!” (Yes, we can!), a chant that was loudly taken up by those assembled.
Rep. David Orentlicher told the appreciative crowd, “I will stand up for Justice for Janitors. You do have friends in the state Legislature.”
During the rally, several ministers formed a delegation to Indianapolis Power and Light, where EMS employees have gotten little support. The Rev. Linda McCrae of Central Christian Church reported that the clergy have previously delivered two letters requesting an appointment with IPL’s top management. Noting that several large employers, including Simon Malls, Eli Lilly and Duke Realty, have agreed to help hold janitorial companies accountable, McCrae said the delegation was once again rebuffed.
“Their position is that as owners of the building, they have no responsibility in what happens between the janitorial company and its employees,” she said. She pledged to continue efforts to intervene on behalf of the workers.
Summing it up was Light of the World’s Bishop T. Garrott Benjamin, who said simply, “If this city is going to be a world-class city, it is going to have to treat all its citizens in a first-class way.
“We are in a battle for the soul of the city,” he said, calling on those present to declare the equality of all, from judges to janitors, from those who wear blue jeans to those in blue uniforms.
“If we can spend a billion dollars on a stadium, surely we can pay a decent wage to the janitors who clean up our mess!”
More information: www.threecitiesonefuture.org.
The “Three Cities, One Future” project (www.threecitiesonefuture.org) aims to bring fair wages to low-income workers in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. According to organizers, these three cities “face a serious dilemma — an explosion of low-wage service sector jobs that do little to provide opportunity, and instead are fueling an increase in the number of working poor families unable to afford health care, a decent place to live and to feed their families.” Recent income, housing and health care data support their claims:
The federal poverty line for a family of four, with two children under 18, is $19,806. In the three cities, janitors are paid as low as $6,864 per year and few are paid more than $16,896 per year. Few have health insurance.
Thirty-nine Fortune 1000 companies are headquartered in Cincinnati, Columbus and Indianapolis. Eighteen of these are Fortune 500 companies, who bring in combined revenues of $365 billion a year, or an average of $1 billion A DAY.
In Ohio, 24 percent of workers in the state earn poverty level wages. And a whopping 34 percent of families live in poverty. Almost half of Ohio families face insecurity over housing.
Twenty-one percent of Indianapolis workers earn poverty level wages, and like Cincinnati almost half face housing insecurity.