Dozens of janitors rallied Monday in downtown Detroit as their union announced plans to strike if their contract demands for higher pay are not met.

Members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1 are in negotiations with contractors on a three-year pact for more than 1,700 area janitors. Their current contract expires July 31. Union officials say the employees work in major downtown destinations such as the Renaissance Center and Guardian Building while earning wages as low as $9.45 an hour. 

“Median annual earnings for janitors are so low that many rely on public assistance just to make ends meet,” union officials said in a statement. “While downtown is booming again, janitors are fighting for at least a $15 wage to ensure they can support their families and their neighborhoods.”

The union said it voted Monday to authorize its bargaining committee to call for members to walk off the job if nothing materializes by the end of the negotiations. 

Leaders say the move was necessary to ensure members benefit from the Detroit's  surging redevelopment.

“Where is our money for our communities? … We want our fair share,” said Pamela Moore, an SEIU Local 1 executive board member. “We’re ready to do whatever it takes … to win a better future for our families.”

Wearing yellow and violet T-shirts while standing near a banner with a quote from civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., more than 50 union members gathered outside the One Campus Martius building to speak out on their cause.

“People don’t understand how hard janitors work every single day,” said Tamara Chapple, a longtime custodian who cleans there. “Downtown Detroit is booming but my family isn’t seeing the benefits.”

Raising their pay to $15 an hour is necessary “so we don’t have to work paycheck to paycheck,” said Octavia Renfroe, who also works downtown. “My dream is to be a homeowner someday. But we can’t make those dreams a reality on our wages.”

Local 1 is negotiating primarily with GDI Omni; ABM; and Professional Building Maintenance/Preferred Building Services, union spokesman Nick Desideri said. Representatives with the companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

The Local 1 janitors have also recently pushed a One Detroit campaign to ensure all workers benefit from the city’s redevelopment.

Their demonstration also drew support from local clergy and lawmakers.

Ensuring decent pay honors their role in Detroit’s comeback, city Councilwoman Janee Ayers told the members. “It is your hard work that is turning this city around.”  

Rev. Tellis Chapman of Detroit’s Galilee Missionary Baptist Church called on companies to consider city residents in their endeavors: “Treat us right, treat us fair, treat us justly, stop the meanness, stop the madness, stop the mess, stop the marginalism.”

State Rep. Stephanie Chang, whose district includes part of Detroit, noted how issues King addressed still exist today called on others to support the janitors’ actions.

“When we have people who are working hard full-time jobs and are on public assistance, something is not right,” she said. “…What we are doing for our fellow human beings?”

After the protest, Councilman Gabe Leland said he plans to work with his colleagues to explore supporting a standard by which all city workers earn at least $15 an hour.

“I feel like it would be a great opportunity for the city of Detroit to lead by example,” he said. 

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