Janitors and allies protesting

Janitors and allies protested in downtown St. Louis on Monday, January 27 in support of a $15 an hour wage for the city’s janitorial workers.

On Monday, February 10, the SEIU Local 1 janitors’ union announced that they won a new contract after months of advocacy, civil disobedience, and a threat of strike. The new agreement, which will last for three years and cover 2,100 janitors, includes various new benefits and pay raises that vary somewhat across the union depending on seniority. 

According to union representative Nick Desideri, the average wage increase is around 14 percent; if a janitor’s current hourly pay is $10.50 per hour, that would bring them up to $11.97. Over a full-time workweek, those increases add up, though for most janitors this increase will not bring them to the “$15 now” that the union’s protests loudly demanded.

But it is not an insignificant increase: among the 2,100 janitors covered by the three-year contract, it would put around $15.3 million into the local economy. These are “the highest raises janitors have ever seen,” said Desideri. “They came together, showed their strength in the street, and won their strongest contract ever because of it.”

Janitor Michelle McNeal described the sense of relief that many union members felt at finally having a contract they could agree on.

“It’s been a very good reaction,” she said. “Everybody was all surprised about some of the things that we were able to change. It was a good response. Everybody was like, ‘Okay, yeah, this is the light at the end of the tunnel.’” 

Eugene Hubbard, an SEIU Local 1 executive board member and CleanTech janitor for COCA, said that though negotiations were “a long process,” he was happy that the issues janitors were most concerned about based on a union survey were covered. “I’m happy to say we got something on every last one of those issues on the survey,” Hubbard said. 

The group was also able to include new protection clauses in their contract. Although, as Desideri said, there was some pressure from CleanTech to incorporate less healthcare coverage in the new contract, that has not happened. They have also gained paid sick days and paid funeral and bereavement day protection, which was not in their prior contract.

SEIU Local 1 janitors will additionally have their gender identity and expression listed as a protected category in their contract now, meaning that none of them can now be legally fired for their gender identity or the way that they present gender. 

Next, Hubbard says, the union will continue moving towards the goal of their campaign, called “One St. Louis” – which ultimately plans to create pressure for a living wage for all jobs in the St. Louis area. For SEIU Local 1, that means continuing to work with graduate students and fast food workers, both under the SEIU Local 1 umbrella.

It also means expanding the scope of their union’s reach. Hubbard noted that there has been some interest in the union from non-unionized janitors who have been closely following the campaign. “Now that we’ve built our campaign, the struggles still continue,” Hubbard said. 

Hubbard, who is 70, said that being arrested in pursuit of this contract was worth the risk. “It was worth it,” he said. “We got a lot of attention. We got the community to really listen. We said, ‘By any means necessary.’ So we showed up and showed out.”

Since the janitors launched their fight in October, the offices of Mayor Lyda Krewson and County Executive Sam Page have put the wages of city and county employees, respectively, on a path to $15 an hour. BJC HealthCare, the largest employer in the region, has done the same for its employees. Collectively, according to an SEIU Local 1 press release, these efforts have led to “more than 4,000 working families [seeing] their wages rise across the city and county.”

The effort has been framed as an economic and racial equity issue since the beginning,  and as the janitors gain their new contract, many in the region see it as a step towards equity in St. Louis.

"By coming together for One St. Louis, janitors are leading the way in making our region more equitable across racial lines for working families,” said Forward Through Ferguson Executive Director David Dwight IV. “Business, civic and elected leaders have an ongoing role to play in raising wages and creating good-paying union jobs to ensure all working people have the opportunity to thrive."

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