Justice for janitors

 

Fair wages and health care on the bargaining table

After three years of pressing their employers to improve working conditions, Indianapolis janitors have finally gained a seat at the table.

Thursday, a bargaining committee representing 1,500 janitors sat down for contract talks with representatives of several large cleaning companies. They began negotiating for fair pay, access to affordable health care and more working hours.

According to Justice for Janitors’ Becky Maran, the goal is a citywide contract that will set a new economic standard for all local janitors. Currently, most Indy janitors work only four to six hours a day for a maximum hourly wage of $7.50 with no affordable health care.

The talks bring workers together with the city’s largest cleaning companies, including American Building Maintenance, Mitch Murch Maintenance Methods and others.

“This is a result of years of organizing,” Maran said, “and this is a big part of what the workers have been working toward, getting all the janitorial companies together to talk about contracts.”

The workers had joined the Service Employees International Union and formed a “Three Cities, One Future” solidarity campaign with SEIU members in Columbus, Ohio, and Cincinnati. Last year, Cincinnati’s janitors won higher wages, more work hours and health insurance in their first-ever citywide union contract.

Maran expressed hope for a positive outcome of the negotiations, saying, “The people are very united. We’ve been successful in other cities.”

The janitors clean the buildings of some of the largest companies in town. In a recent dramatization of the plight of the uninsured, on Valentine’s Day workers and their supporters delivered 100,000 candy hearts to the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, an alliance of CEOs of the region’s largest employers. The hearts were meant to symbolize Indianapolis residents without health care.

The Indianapolis Clergy Committee has long lent their presence to the janitors’ cause at rallies and marches. Their support culminated Thursday with members of the clergy offering a blessing to the janitors prior to the negotiations.

One of those present was the Rev. Kate Cullinane of the Episcopal Church, who said, “We see it as a justice issue.” The Indianapolis Clergy Committee includes Muslim, Jewish and Christian participants, all supporting the basic human rights of the janitors.

Aside from basic rights, the entire city suffers if some workers are kept in poverty, organizers have said. “It improves the quality of life in Indianapolis for everyone if people are treated fairly on the job and have health care,” Cullinane said.

Bringing the majority of contract cleaning companies to the table at the same time was an intentional strategy, according to Cullinane. The contractors routinely undercut each others’ bids, and organizers want them to “raise the floor,” she said. “We can’t get one company to raise their wages without the other companies being on board.”

Patricia Lamas, a service worker and bargaining committee member, said through a translator that she appreciated the support of the clergy.

“It was a good start to the negotiations,” she said. “We are going to fight until the end. We need the support of all workers to make a better city for everyone.”

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