Clean sweep

“We are the union, mighty, mighty union!” The lobby of Ameritech’s Troy office building vibrated on Oct. 26 with the chants of 300 angry janitors, members of Service Employees (SEIU) Local 79, come to demand a living wage and equity between downtown janitors and their counterparts who travel to the suburbs to mop and clean.

Dressed in purple-and-gold union jackets and T-shirts, African-American Detroiters rattled pop cans filled with beads. Macedonian immigrants from Hamtramck beat on empty buckets, keeping time to their chants. Bewildered Ameritech employees stuck their heads out of the descending elevators and as quickly ascended again.

Accustomed to inhabiting the high-rise towers during the ghostly after-hours quietness, the noise must have seemed deafening to the janitors. They turned it off like a flash when Local 79 President Willie Hampton climbed up on the lobby information desk to address the crowd. Three sentences in, Troy police arrived and ordered an end to the proceedings. The janitors filed back onto the buses that had brought them from the union hall downtown.

It was the third in a series of raucous demonstrations that on Oct. 28 landed the janitors a contract they could build on, and it mirrored the successes the decade-old movement has seen in other big cities with innovative and sometimes confrontational tactics. In the process, reported the Los Angeles Times, the SEIU has transformed itself from “a broken, dispirited shell in the mid-’80s … into a formidable presence.”

Here in Detroit, the suburban custodians won pensions and family health insurance for all members and raises of $1.15 to $1.65 an hour over the course of 2 1/2 years. By 2003 downtown janitors will earn $11.40 an hour and suburban janitors will be up to $8.65. A shift premium for those starting late at night means that some workers will get an immediate raise of 75 cents an hour.

Perhaps just as important, said Brando Harris, a steward at the Town Center in Southfield, their contract expiration dates will line up with janitors in other major cities around the country, giving the union more leverage.

The union janitors clean big office buildings such as the Ren Cen, Blue Cross, Comerica Towers and Penobscot Building downtown and the Town Center, Ford Motor Co. and Delphi World Headquarters in the suburbs, as well as the airport and Cobo Hall. Their paychecks are signed not by the building owners themselves but by big contractors such as Aramark, New Image, or ABM, which operate regionally or nationally. (A number of companies could not be reached for comment or declined comment when contacted.)

The union’s most important goal was to reduce the pay-and-benefits gap between janitors downtown, where 85 percent are unionized, and in the suburbs, where the figure is more like 30 percent. Before the new contract, a downtown janitor with high seniority made $10 an hour, with insurance after three years for his or her family. According to organizers, suburban janitors were starting at around $6.50 an hour, with no benefits and about a $7 maximum working for the same contractors.

The companies recruit almost all their janitors from Detroit, and transportation to the suburbs is a problem. New Image, the largest contractor in Troy, docked its workers 75 cents an hour when they used the company van to get to work — effectively reducing pay, until now, to $5.75 an hour.

Detroiter Cornelia Lyles was making $6 with no benefits working for Aramark, cleaning Ford buildings in Dearborn. She works from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and then again from 5 p.m.-9, 10 or 11 p.m. She is raising her 17-year-old and her brother’s two children on her own. “We want for our family what they have for their family,” Lyles said, in reference to the contractors. “I’m tired of Parkay. I want butter. Their kids can go to the dentist. If our kids get sick, they can’t go to the doctor.”

Janitors work in a booming office real estate market where building owners and contractors are benefiting from high occupancy rates and high rental rates.

That doesn’t translate to higher pay for janitors. SEIU organizer Gabe Morgan explains, “In Detroit all the contractors are signed onto the master contract. In the suburbs, with the low percentage organized, the union has less impact. Those companies that sign have to compete with the bottom-feeder contractors.” Which is to say nonunion contractors.

The stepped-up pressure for a livable contract was part of a national Justice for Janitors campaign. Several years ago SEIU janitors locals around the country began planning to move contract expiration dates to the year 2000; Detroit’s was the 17th this year.

The campaign was launched in Los Angeles with demonstrations and a three-week strike and resulted in big wins there. Janitors in San Diego, New York and Chicago struck in the spring, gaining health insurance and the largest wage increases ever. By the time the campaign reached Cleveland and Milwaukee, janitors settled contracts with similar gains without strikes.

Expirations nationally are now clustered in the first half of 2003.

SEIU International Vice President Tom Balanoff, of Chicago, says tighter labor markets have helped the union make gains: “In some places the contract says $6.50 and we know they’re hiring people at $8. So this is an attempt to capture that in a contract before the economy turns down.” Local 79 President Hampton said that Detroit contractors face a shortage of workers because of competition from the casinos.

The local’s next goal is to organize more buildings in the suburbs, using the new contract as ammunition.

Jane Slaughter is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]