In All Labor Has Dignity, Reverend Martin Luther King describes how the organized labor movement first came into being: "The worker became determined not to wait for charitable impulses to grow in his employer. He constructed the means by which a fairer share of the fruits of his toil had to be given to him."
Janitors in the Midwest have decided not to wait for charitable impulses to grow in their employers. A series of strikes began last month in Columbus, Ohio, and janitors in Cincinnati went on strike for the first time today.
12 supporters from Chicago, Cleveland, Toledo, and Columbus were arrested today in a supportive act of civil disobedience at PNC Bank in Columbus to raise awareness of unfair labor practices by New York-based ABM Industries, the largest janitorial contractor in the U.S.
"At the negotiating table, ABM was the ringleader—demanding a part-time janitorial workforce in Columbus," said Claude Smith, a Vietnam War veteran and full-time ABM janitor in Columbus.
"I don’t understand why," Smith said. "We show up every day and we work hard doing the best job we can. I know ABM can afford good jobs. We just want to be able to put food on the table and maybe save a little for retirement."
Part-time status would make the janitors ineligible for company-provided health insurance, sick leave, and other benefits.
"I am supporting this cause because I cannot see myself working part-time without benefits," said Griselda Paz, a mother of three and a Chicago janitor for more than 20 years. "We are all in this together."
Janitors in Columbus currently earn an average of $18,000 a year, below the federal poverty line for a family of four. Like Wal-Mart employees, many of the janitors rely on SNAP and other assistance programs to make ends meet.
I was one of the 12 arrested in Columbus today. I'm not a union member, but I support the work of SEIU Local 1 to protect workers from corporate greed. Wealth inequality in the U.S. is at its worst level since before the Great Depression.
Corporations have been exploiting workers in all of the service industries with impunity for decades. People who care about economic justice want to change that. But Corporate America isn't going to change its practices and priorities because we ask nicely.