Missouri janitors fight poverty wages

ST. LOUIS – “This contract depends on community support,” Juan Montana, an organizer with the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) Local 1, told the People’s World as janitors and their labor and community allies marched here in downtown Clayton on Tuesday, November 20.

“We need people to understand what is going on with the janitors,” Montana continued.

The janitors wore giant back and white photos draped around their chests and back as they marched and chanted “What’s disgusting? Union busting! What’s outrageous? Poverty wages!”

The giant photos were pictures of local janitors, union families and community supporters. The idea, according to Montana, is to humanize the janitors, to put a face on a work-force that is largely considered “invisible.”

“People clean the offices. Everything’s done. Everything’s great,” Montana said. “But we forget that real people do this job. And that it is hard, back breaking work.”

“Actual people clean these offices and building. Janitors touch all our lives,” Montana added.

According to SEIU, janitors in St. Louis are paid as little as $14,560 annually, or as little as $260 a week, well below the poverty line.

Additionally, the union says that 21 janitorial companies in the St. Louis metropolitan area made more than $9.5 billion in profits in 2011, while their top CEO’s took home over $113 million in compensation.

Furthermore, according to Montana, many of the janitors are part-time employees making less than $7,500 without health benefits.

The union is negotiating with the Contract Cleaners Association, which includes the 21 janitorial companies, instead of the individual cleaning companies. They hope to bargain one big contract for all of the janitors, which will also help put up-ward pressure on wages for all St. Louis area janitors – even those who don’t currently belong to the union.

According to Sara Flores, also with SEIU Local 1, “We are fighting for better wages and benefits for all janitors.”

Earlier this year thousands of janitors went on strike in dozens of cities all across the country demanding higher pay, better benefits and dignity and respect on the job.

Steve Johnson, an organizer with Teamsters Local 688 and a leader in St. Louis Jobs with Justice, told the People’s World, “We all have to come together to support the janitors. We have to fight and take it to their doorsteps if we have to.”

“The CEO’s represent the 1 percent. We represent the 99 percent. The Teamsters and the entire labor movement stand with the janitors. We want the cleaning companies to know that we’re not playing.”

The union is planning a series of actions, pickets and rallies as contract negotiations ramp up.


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the president of the St. Louis Workers' Education Society (WES), a 501c3 non-profit organization chartered by the St. Louis Central Labor Council as a Workers Center. His articles have been published in the St. Louis Labor Tribune, Alternet, Shelterforce, Political Affairs, and Z-Magazine, among other publications. He is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA," and is available to speak at your community center, union hall or campus.