Indianapolis Star, February 5, 2008: Hard work deserves fair wage

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On Jan. 21, the day commemorating the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., I participated in an interfaith service hosted by Christ Church Cathedral. The gathering was dedicated to celebrating King’s legacy, honoring the memory of Congresswoman Julia Carson and advancing the mission of Interfaith Worker Justice, a national organization that advocates on behalf of low-wage workers. The Indianapolis Clergy Committee has been laboring for more than two years to ensure decent wages and affordable health care for the service workers, in particular janitors and hotel workers.

It is deplorable that janitors working at some of the most prestigious corporations in Indianapolis live far below the poverty level and have no access to affordable health care. The average wage for a janitor is less than $10,000 a year.

This reality reflects growing economic disparities and inequities. Nearly one in every six Indianapolis residents, including 227,000 children, lives below the poverty line. Dead-end poverty-wage jobs contribute to struggling neighborhoods, failing schools, high crime rates and other factors that hurt Indianapolis’ ability to grow, attract and retain the best-trained, educated work force.

Janitors represent one of the fastest-growing job sectors in Indianapolis. The Indiana Department of Workforce Development has projected 9,280 new janitorial jobs in the state by 2014. Yet, janitors who clean our offices and hotels are often at the bottom of the salary totem pole.

Other cities have done better. In July 2007, Cincinnati janitors doubled their income in the first 18 months of a new contract and were guaranteed quality, affordable health care. In November, 1,500 Columbus, Ohio, janitors ratified their first contract, ensuring higher wages, health insurance and better schedules. Some leading businesses in our city have taken steps so that their janitorial subcontractors ensure the dignity of workers; but many still need to come on board, and much remains to be done.

If you work hard, you should receive a fair wage. If you keep other people’s offices safe and sanitary, you should have working conditions that are safe and sanitary. If you take out others’ trash, you should not be treated like trash. If you clean a nice hotel, you should be able to take a vacation. If you work taking care of the sick and the elderly, you should have access to health care and a pension.

Unfortunately, many corporations that pay their employees handsome wages and benefits avoid doing the same for their janitorial staff because they subcontract their services to companies that take advantage of workers. These subcontractors too often pay workers the lowest possible wages, deprive them of full employment benefits and intimidate them in their efforts to organize and advocate for better conditions.

If you work for or do business with large businesses, check that people who are cleaning the building while other employees are enjoying their evenings with family and friends are being justly compensated.

King reminded us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He invited us to “dream of a land where (people) will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.” For ultimately “we are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality and tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

For more information on the Justice for Janitors Campaign, contact Leslie Mendoza Kamstra at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 3 at or (317) 517-7494.

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