Labor union demands higher wages for local janitors

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Detroit — Members of a local union, community organizations and a city councilman gathered Wednesday to demand higher wages for area janitors who work on the ground-level of Detroit’s comeback.

“You can’t redevelop a city with dirty buildings,” said Mary King, executive director of Doing Development Differently in Detroit. “Janitors are really our foundation and we don’t treat them that way.”

King on Wednesday joined members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1 and City Councilman George Cushingberry Jr. for a press conference calling for a move toward $15 an hour wages over the life of the union’s new contract. The current contract expires July 31.

“I came over here today to stand with the SEIU Local 1,” Cushingberry said at the press conference held outside the Cadillac Tower near Campus Martius. “We’re just asking the owners (of the building) to reconsider their anti-union attitude in the home of organized labor.”

Cadillac Tower used to employ union janitors, said Pamela Owens, an SEIU board member and American Building Maintenance employee working in downtown Detroit. A couple years ago, a new contractor brought in non-union employees.

“These companies come in and put the union people out,” said Owens, 57, who added she has not worked inside Cadillac Tower. “They bring non-union people in for lower wages.”

Niya Reed, 37, said she worked as a janitor at a building in Detroit for about a year until her union contract expired.

“In April, we got word that we were out,” she said. “They told us we could come back and fill out an application but we wouldn’t be making the same pay. We’d be making less.”

Reed said the new positions also came with fewer benefits and less comprehensive health insurance.

Rick Blocker, president of the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO, called for companies to stop replacing unions with non-union employees.

“These companies are coming in just trying to save money on the backs of the workers,” he said.

King said her organization partnered with the SEIU because of matching priorities.

“We’re very interested in making sure post-construction and post-development jobs result in family sustaining wages and benefits,” she said. “The union supports low wage workers and provides them with decent wages and benefits. That’s in alignment with our mission and vision.”

SEIU Local 1 represents about 1,400 Detroit-area janitors and nearly 50,000 service workers throughout the Midwest, union officials said, adding that the average janitor working in downtown Detroit makes around $24,000 a year.

“Janitors are really hard-working people and it’s ridiculous that people who work so hard make so little that they qualify for government subsidies like reduced priced lunches and housing,” King said. “We believe that people who work for a living should be able to make a living.”

Owens said higher pay will increase worker productivity.

“It will make their attitudes better, they can feed their families, and they don’t have to come to work stressed,” she said. “Some people are more fortunate than us, but they aren’t better than us. We gotta eat, too.”

Wednesday’s press conference was part of a series of events this week honoring the 25th anniversary of “Justice for Janitors Day,” a 1990 strike by service workers in Los Angeles, union officials said. Other events include a rally and prayer vigil.

The local movement joins 130,000 janitors in 33 cities nationwide who will negotiate job improvements over the next 19 months as part of the nationwide Fight for 15 campaign, officials said.

(313) 223-4616