Dozens of janitors employed by 13 downtown Milwaukee buildings rallied outside the Service Employees International Union Local 1 offices July 21 to call for a $15-an-hour minimum wage floor in their ongoing contract negotiations. The owners of these buildings have contracts with cleaning companies, which in turn have three-year contracts with the janitors that work for them. The building owners pay the cleaning companies and the cleaning companies pay the janitors. The janitors have to bargain for a contract not only with the cleaning company that pays them, but also with the building owners, which has bogged negotiations down in recent days.
“We are going to bring home a contract with $15-an-hour wages, which is a down payment on a living wage,” said Peter Rickman, an organizer with the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization. “Without a union, the bosses have all the power and the workers have none. Workers come to the table with bosses as equals with a union. We aren’t winning $15-an-hour because politicians are getting it for us. It’s because workers are organizing a movement to get to the table and get what we deserve.”
Organizers with MASH have assisted SEIU Local 1 in this contract renewal campaign, encouraging janitors who are already union members to make their voices heard in the contract negotiating process, while also signing up new union members to strengthen the worker position at the bargaining table. “There was a significant increase in the number of union members because of the work of MASH, with at least 12 new people signing union cards to join the janitors’ union represented by SEIU 1,” said MASH organizer Juan Miguel Martinez in an interview with Liberation News. “The rally was another step to strengthen the position of the union during negotiations, showing that janitors from every building were united in their demands for a living wage.”
“It was the union down at the Fiserv Forum that got us 15, that got us organized,” said Kenny Green, a long-time service sector worker and unionist, in reference to the major union victory among employees at Milwaukee’s new basketball stadium in 2018, “I came to that struggle, having been a part of another union with the mentality that good employers make good employees, and good employees make good employers. But in this campaign MASH brought the heat instead. They said, ‘This is what we are going to get.’ It’s to the point where we gotta stop the division, not that one sector gets their contract and then they are gone. We need to struggle until all sectors get what they deserve, because the thing about divide and conquer is so true. When the janitors are fighting, we are all janitors!”
Martinez added: “We can get $15-an-hour and more if we all get together. MASH isn’t the union. SEIU isn’t the union. The workers, the janitors are the union. People make up the union, workers make up the union, their language goes in the contract. It isn’t just a little slogan… If the workers are all together they can get the acknowledgement and the contract that they deserve. It is important that janitors come together to get what they are owed.”
Janitors were supported by various organizations from across the city, including Voces de la Frontera, represented at the rally by Primativo Torres, who connected the issue of workers rights with the immigration struggle: “Two things happened during the pandemic, the rich get richer and the rest of us got screwed. These are essential workers, they put themselves and their families on the line during this pandemic. Some of them lost their lives. Let’s get this straight, all workers, all people are essential one way or another, and it is time for workers’ struggles to be fought hand-in-hand with immigration struggles.”
Other groups that turned out to support the janitors in their struggle for a new contract were Souls to the Polls Milwaukee, the Party for Socialism and Liberation-Milwaukee and Black Leaders Organizing Communities.
Feature photo: Janitors rally outside the SEIU Local 1 offices in Milwaukee to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Liberation photo