Whitmer kicks off push by unionized janitors for new contracts

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans on Wednesday helped to kick off Service Employees International Union Local 1's Detroit janitorial steward training for summer contract negotiations.  

"I am proud to stand arm and arm with SEIU. I am bowled over by your determination," Whitmer said to a crowd of about 100 union members. "We've got work to do, but so long as you keep showing up for me, we are going to be successful and I will always keep showing up for all of you."

The Democratic governor is running for re-election in the fall and was endorsed by most of the labor movement when she ran in 2018. Her opponent will be the winner of the Aug. 2 Republican primary that features Metro Detroit businessman Kevin Rinke, North Shores businesswoman Tudor Dixon, Allendale, Mattawan chiropractor Garrett Soldano, real estate agent Ryan Kelley and Farmington Hills pastor Ralph Rebandt. Former Detroit police chief James Craig is launching a write-in campaign.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed members of Service Employees International Union Local 1 on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in Detroit, showing support for the union as it conducts contract negotiations.

The training was followed by a rally at the Spirit of Detroit in honor of Justice for Janitors day, the purpose of which was to send a message to contractors that janitors are demanding respect, workplace protection and fair pay, said Brandice Mullen, Michigan State Director of SEIU Local 1. 

"We actually go back to the table tomorrow," Mullen said. "In taking the streets collectively, we have to show these employers we mean business."

Representatives of other local unions, including the Michigan Corrections Organization and SEIU Healthcare Michigan, joined City Council President Mary Sheffield and member Gabriela Santiago-Romero, Wayne County commissioners Alisha Bell and Tim Killeen, among others.

"We want you to know that we stand with you totally," said Dian Palmer, a trustee with SEIU Healthcare Michigan. "We are the workers that kept Detroit running when everybody else was walking out, when everybody else was sitting on their sofa and taking their Zoom calls."

SEIU Local 1 President Genie Kastrup told union members before the training that janitors played an integral role in keeping public paces clean, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Every day you demonstrated through your hard work, your passion, that you're not only essential, but you're not expendable," Kastrup said. "We come together, SEIU family, to build upon our past, and I can't think of a better way to do that than to win a damn good contract for the janitors in Detroit."

Evans and Whitmer both emphasized the importance of collective bargaining, encouraging those in attendance to vote and get their friends and families to vote in the upcoming election.

"People ought to respect people for putting in a solid day's work for a solid day's pay," Evans said. "The problem is you don't have the solid days pay yet."

Four years ago SEIU Local 1 agreed to a contract that would raise member's minimum wage to $15 per hour after three years.

Markita Blanchard, a SEIU Local 1 steward and cleaner in the Detroit school system, said the union's priorities for the new contract include essential workers pay in recognition for their work during the pandemic, automatic pay raises and better health insurance. 

"For years and years, every contract we've ever had has been the best contract we've ever had," Blanchard said.

Linda Hall, a janitor at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, echoed the priorities. 

"Today across the country, janitors are rising up for justice," Hall said. "We continue to fight for what is right — fair pay, healthy and safe workplaces and respect in our workplace."

hmackay@detroitnews.com