Three days after 17 janitors and allies were arrested in a downtown protest, the SEIU Local 1 union representing 2,100 janitors in the St. Louis area voted “overwhelmingly” to strike if they were not able to win a $15/hour wage through negotiation. By the end of that day, they reached a tentative agreement with the janitorial company Clean-Tech, which they have been in protracted negotiations with since October. Union members will vote on the agreement this week.
In a press conference outside the Old Courthouse on Thursday, January 30, a group of about two dozen janitors, faith leaders, and allies declared their intention to escalate beyond their ongoing rallies and direct actions and go on strike if Clean-Tech did not meet their demands.
Michelle McNeal, who works as a Clean-Tech janitor at 1010 Market St., said that her $10/hour wage is not enough to feed her family. Just as recently as last week, McNeal, her children, and her six-year-old grandchild had been homeless. “We are worth $15 an hour,” she said. “Stand in our shoes and work $10 an hour. It’s not enough.”
McNeal said that she was “10 toes down” in the effort for a $15 wage and was willing to do whatever is necessary to get it, even if that meant striking and losing the only income source her family has.
But she and the other janitors were not without support. John Stiffler, executive secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council, pledged his union’s alliance with SEIU Local 1.
“I am here representing 20,000 members to lend the janitors support for their fight,” Stiffler said.
He recalled how the anti-union Right to Work amendment was overwhelmingly defeated in Missouri through solidarity between multiple groups of workers.
“We won that fight with the help of all workers,” Stiffler said. “We can win this one too.”
Many St. Louis faith leaders are also throwing their support behind the janitors. Reverend Darryl Gray expressed his willingness to provide financial support to any striking janitors and urged other clergy to do the same.
“Obviously, as a faith community, we have to be in prayer, but prayer without works means absolutely nothing,” Gray said. “If we’re talking about 2,100 people affected by this, then that’s 2,100 families — most of those are black families, and members of our congregations. So we’ve got to be prepared to give something back.”
Both the City Board of Aldermen and County Council passed resolutions in January supporting the janitors in their fight for a $15 wage. The janitors have also garnered significant attention from politicians and media over the past week, including a statement in support of their cause from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
The janitors’ threat of a strike came at a time when various groups in both St. Louis city and county are exerting pressure for higher wages—and, in some cases, getting those wages. On January 17, Mayor Lyda Krewson ordered a $15 minimum wage for all city employees. Then on January 30—the same day the janitors vowed to strike—St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announced that the minimum wage for county employees would be raised to $13 this year and to $15 by 2022.
“I appreciate Dr. Page for standing with St. Louis County working families by putting County workers, including contracted ones like me, on a path to $15,” said SEIU Local 1 CleanTech janitor Geraldine Spencer, who cleans the St. Louis County Government Center. “This will go a long way towards helping working families pay the bills and strengthening communities across the region.”
For non-governmental employees in both the city and county, however, minimum wage remains at $9.45 an hour—which, SEIU Local 1 members said, is both inadequate to raise a family on and helps to perpetuate income inequalities along racial lines.
Nearly all of the SEIU Local 1 members at the press conference were African-American. According to Gray, that is reflective of the racial composition of the union as a whole.
“The vast majority of the 2,100 people that we’re talking about are African-American,” Gray said. “That’s not a coincidence. We need people to look at black poverty the same way they look at white poverty and make it a priority.”
One of those 2,100 janitors is Keosha Gowan, who works for Clean-Tech at Express Scripts in North County. With a $15 wage, she said, she would be able to start saving up for her four-year-old daughter’s college education.
“I don’t want her to be struggling just like I am right now,” Gowan said. “I’m doing this for her.”