Janitors raise their voices to fight poverty in Cincinnati

About 200 janitorial workers, represented by SEIU Local 1, and their supporters gather on 4th St. to rally for better wages and to protest the use of a nonunion contractor to clean Great American Tower.

The struggle to escape poverty in Cincinnati played out in front of Great American Tower on Saturday, when about 200 janitorial workers, represented by Service Employees International Union Local 1, rallied for better wages and protested the use of nonunion contractors to clean buildings like Great American Tower, home to the city’s premier Class A office space.

The face of poverty in Cincinnati is that of a single, black mother working a low-wage job, according to data compiled by Mayor John Cranley’s Child Poverty Collaborative: 75 percent of children in poverty are black and 85 percent of families with children in poverty are headed by a single woman. To meet basic financial needs, a family of three requires an annual income of $50,000, but 72 percent of  jobs in the region pay less than $50,000.

Tamika Maxwell, 25, who has worked full-time as a janitor in downtown office buildings since she was 17, could be the Child Poverty Collaborative’s poster-woman. She is black and the single mother of four children, ranging in age from 2 to 8 years.

For the last four years, Maxwell has worked for Columbus-based Scioto Services, which is owned by Marsden Holdings LLC of St. Paul, Minn.

Tamika Maxwell collects signs at the end of Saturday's rally organized by her union, SEIU.
Tamika Maxwell collects signs at the end of Saturday’s rally organized by her union, SEIU.

“I was recently promoted to supervisor. I had to fight for that position,” she said. As she tells it, she was doing the work of a job site supervisor, but the company refused to acknowledge her expanded responsibilities until a labor-management meeting was convened by SEIU to settle the matter. The outcome was in her favor.

The promotion to supervisor increased her hourly pay by 75 cents to $11.00 per hour, about $22,000 per year. Scioto demands that all work be done on regular shift hours, so Maxwell is unable to earn overtime, even if her crew is understaffed. She has no benefits like paid time off for vacation, holidays, or sick time.

Recently, Maxwell’s son required mental health services from St. Joseph Orphanage, a behavioral health agency for children. Because appointments and visiting hours conflicted with her work hours of 3:30 p.m. to midnight, she was unable to work. The family went without two weeks of income.

Scioto accepted the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) paperwork filed with help from SEIU as sufficient justification for her absences. Otherwise the absences would have warranted her termination.

To support her family, Maxwell relies on subsidized housing, food stamps, health insurance, and childcare. She has no credit cards, no debt, and no car. She walks to work, and she walks her older children to school. Before work, she prepares home-cooked dinners for the childcare provider to feed her children.

The Master Contract covering SEIU’s 800 janitorial workers in the Cincinnati region expires Dec. 31. Contract talks are expected to begin in early November.

SEIU Local 1 rally in CincinnatiOne of the union’s goals in the talks is to create a pathway to a $15 an hour wage.

“I’m in for that fight,” said Maxwell. “Fifteen dollars an hour would mean for me personally that I wouldn’t have to pick between buying coats for my children right now or paying my Duke bill.”

“They outgrew their last year coats,” she said, but the Duke bill has to be paid. She hopes to buy the coats in the next pay cycle.

Maxwell could not afford to buy Halloween costumes for her children. “It really sucks, especially when my 6 year old, who’s really princess-like and gets her way a lot, can’t get her way and she cries. I have to explain why I cannot go trick-or-treating or buy costumes for her.”

“We work hard and deserve $15 an hour,” said Maxwell.

Maxwell and her crew clean the William Howard Taft Center at 230 E. 9th St., where they are responsible for 12 floors, covering the equivalent of about 2.8 football fields of rentable space.

Three days a week, she sweeps and mops 12 floors of cafeteria and lobby space, and two days a week, she collects and disposes of trash from offices on 12 floors and vacuums six floors. She also completes special tasks in the logbook and performs her supervisory duties. Even at 25, she suffers sore shoulders from the heavy backpack vacuum and an ailing right foot.

Arnita Summerlin, 45, from Avondale, works part time with Professional Maintenance of Cincinnati where she makes $9.80 per hour. She works 20 hours per week in five 4-hour shifts cleaning 24 restrooms on 11 floors of the Carew Tower.

Arnita Summerlin, a janitor and SEIU member, addresses the crowd at Queen City Square in front of the Great American Tower.
Arnita Summerlin, a janitor and SEIU member, addresses the crowd in front of the Great American Tower.

“It takes a strong stomach [to clean toilets] and a determination to get down and get through it,” said Summerlin, who has worked in the industry since 2007.

Summerlin appreciates what she calls “her union family.” “They’re really taking the time out to help you understand it from the business perspective,” she said. “They help with keeping emotions in check until all the facts are brought together.”

For LaToyia Comb, the southern Ohio coordinator for SEIU Local 1, the contract negotiation is about the future of Cincinnati’s low-wage workers and their families, not just union members.

SEIU Local 1 rally in Cincinnati
LaToyia Comb, SEIU’s southern Ohio coordinator, says the union is looking to raise Cincinnati up with good jobs.

“We are looking to raise Cincinnati and Columbus up with good jobs. Jobs that pay families sustaining wages,” said Comb at the rally.

While union workers tend to have higher wages and more employer-paid benefits than nonunion workers, it’s not just about wages and benefits, said Kathleen Policy, media spokesperson for SEIU Local 1. It’s also about workers having a voice on the job.

When workers have a collective voice on the job, said Policy, they can promote fair treatment for themselves and positive change for employers. Workplace standards are raised. The result is often higher worker productivity and lower turnover, which improve both company profits and the local economy.

There was a time when janitors, security guards, groundskeepers, payroll clerks, and many other diverse occupations were directly employed by financial institutions, manufacturers, hotels, and other companies, writes David Weil in The Fissured Workplace.

Companies would share gains with their employees for the sake of fairness and employee morale, according to Weil, who is the administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Dept. of Labor.

In the 1980s and 1990s, corporations shed their role as direct employers in favor of outsourcing work to companies that compete fiercely with one another. The result, according to Weil, has been declining wages, eroding benefits, inadequate health and safety conditions, and ever-widening income inequality.

Companies have shifted responsibility for the wages, benefits, and working conditions of their former employees to a competitive process where the contractor with the lowest cost bid wins.

The company’s customers may enjoy lower prices, and their investors may enjoy better returns, but the janitors–and others once employed by the company–are out of luck.

Taxpayers are also out of luck. They are left to shoulder the burden of low wages with tax-funded income supports for the working poor, even for those working full-time jobs.

On Saturday, Comb pointed to the Great American Tower, the city’s tallest building at 665 feet, and called out its janitorial contractor, Executive Management Services, as “irresponsible.”

It was, according to Policy, a call to EMS to allow its janitors to unionize, then come to the bargaining table with SEIU. It was also a call to the building manager, Eagle Realty Group, a subsidiary of Western & Southern Financial Group, to hire a union janitorial contractor.

Rev. Troy Jackson, executive director of the AMOS Project, calls the crowd to prayer at Saturday's SEIU rally.
Rev. Troy Jackson, executive director of the AMOS Project, calls the crowd to prayer at Saturday’s SEIU rally.

Comb invited Rev. Troy Jackson, executive director of the AMOS Project, to pray at the rally.

“Today, just a few blocks from here, hundreds of corporate leaders gather to try to solve the mystery of childhood poverty,” said Jackson, referring to the half-day summit on childhood poverty at the Duke Convention Center organized by the Child Poverty Collaborative.

“They’re spending millions of dollars to try to solve childhood poverty. Lord, we would invite them to stop with all their conferences and all their summits, to see the eyes and hearts and lives of the people represented right here today, the men and women who make this city work.”

After the rally, Jackson said many of the corporations supporting United Way are often complicit in the problem of childhood poverty in Cincinnati because they do not pay their employees a living wage. Jackson feels it is important that their employees and the employees of their contractors make a living wage and have a collective voice on the job.

Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, candidate for Cincinnati mayor, addresses Saturday's SEIU rally.
Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, candidate for Cincinnati mayor, addresses Saturday’s SEIU rally.

Also speaking in support of the janitors on Saturday were Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, candidate for Cincinnati mayor; Brigid Kelly, candidate for state representative in Ohio House district 31; and Mother Paula Jackson, Episcopal priest of The Church of Our Saviour/La Iglesia de Nuestro Salvador.

By Mike Brown, mbrown.c4ad@gmail.com