Janitors rally for wage increase

By Aviva Einhorn

With the spotlight shining ever brighter on income disparity in the U.S., Chicago’s janitorial workers are taking proactive measures to demand economic security.

At the Good Jobs for the 99% Convention Feb. 26, city janitors and supporters filled the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St. Negotiations for a new contract were detailed at the event organized by the Service Employees International Union Local 1.

The union’s current contract is set to expire April 8, and many janitorial workers are seeking higher salaries and asking that the health benefits provided by their current contract stay intact.

According to SEIU, more than 13,000 city janitors are affected by the current contract negotiations scheduled to begin March 7. During the negotiations, the union will call on employers and the city’s most profitable companies to create more jobs with benefits and salaries that can sustain working-class families.

A panel of SEIU representatives elected to the bargaining committee spoke to the crowded theater about their plans for the upcoming contract. Speakers included SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and Vice President Valarie Long.

“Income for 95 percent of American households has either stayed the same or fallen in the last 30 years,” Long said. “Despite that, we are in the middle of

turning it around, [and] bargaining campaigns like this will get us out of the middle and into the front of it.”

According to the Economic Policy Institute’s basic family budget calculator, the average annual cost of living in the Chicago area is $48,800 for a family of two parents and two children.

A study by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council projected that Chicago janitors are considered “very low income,” with workers in the downtown area earning a salary of $31,000 and those in the suburbs earning $24,000.

SEIU member Ursula Domaradzki spoke to the audience about the importance of the union’s negotiations and how she has been affected by her membership. She said benefits provided by union contracts gave her access to health care that allowed her to properly care for her sick son and send her daughter to Northwestern University.

“Chase Bank made $8.5 billion in profit last year, [and] it would take me or any Chicago janitor who keeps Chase clean 31 years to make what Chase profits in just one hour,” Domaradzki said. “If the 1 percent just paid their fair share, Chicago would have more good jobs, better schools and safer neighborhoods.”

Another issue raised at the event was layoffs, which have occurred in significant numbers during the past year, according to Maribel Carrasco, a SEIU member for 23 years and custodial worker at ABM Industries, a building maintenance and facilities service in Chicago.

“Many people have lost their jobs, I was worried I would lose my job as well,” she said. “I am thankful for my health insurance and benefits, but we need to have salary raises. That’s why we’re here.”

Carrasco said she wants to see to see the city create more jobs, not take them away.

However, fellow SEIU member Makedonka Pekevska said the territory of layoffs is “none of their business.”

“We are here for higher wages,” Pekevska said. “But sometimes there is no need for our work. Some places, they close or they don’t need us. That’s not always somebody’s fault.”

According to SEIU spokeswoman Izabela Miltko, the bargaining committee will be negotiating with the Building Owners and Managers Association, the cleaning contractor for commercial office buildings in downtown Chicago.

“Hopefully the new contract will be completed for release by early April when the current one expires,” Miltko said. “If not, and if further negotiations are necessary, we will have to work from there.”