ST. LOUIS – On Jan. 26, over 400 members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 50 voted unanimously to go on strike.

Local 50, which represents over 3,000 custodial and janitorial employees in the St. Louis area, are negotiating with the Contract Cleaners Association (CCA).

The previous agreement between Local 50 and CCA, an association of eight different companies, expired Dec. 31, 2001. The current round of negotiations began Nov. 16.

The average St. Louis janitor is making around $6.50 an hour.

Charley Hatcher, organizing director of SEIU Local 50, said the janitors are getting paid “slave wages.”

“Some janitors have worked for the same company since 1973 and are only making $6.65,” said Hatcher.

According to the East West Gateway Coordinating Council, St. Louis janitors’ wages are 30 percent below minimum standards of $9 to $10 per hour.

Local 50 has proposed a $1 an hour annual increase over the next three years, raising the average hourly wage to over $9. The CCA offered a 25 cent annual increase.

The janitors are also negotiating to institute a major medical insurance plan. Currently there is a health care crisis for the uninsured and the underinsured in St. Louis, especially in the African-American community.

African Americans comprise 85 percent of the 8,000 janitors in the St. Louis area. SEIU members are asking employers to cover a $125 per month insurance plan. Currently employers contribute $20 per month.

About 30 percent of janitors represented by Local 50 are full-time. The union janitors perform 65 percent of all office custodial work in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Spann Cleaners and Preferred Building Cleaners employ janitors and custodial employees at Washington University and St. Louis University, respectively. The president of CCA is from Spann Cleaners.

St. Louis students are in a unique position to put pressure on the campus administration. They can demand that the universities not contract out to employers who refuse to pay their employees a living wage.

Last year, Harvard students took part in a Justice for Janitors campaign on behalf of custodial and janitorial workers, SEIU Local 254. They held sit-ins and protested to urge the campus administration to pay a living wage to its employees.

On Dec. 19, the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies recommended a “significant” wage increase.