The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.
— The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in a speech given to the Illinois State AFL-CIO, Springfield, Illinois, Oct. 7, 1965
As we celebrate the life of The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, thousands of janitors around the Twin Cities are taking King’s words and putting them into action.
We are united as members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26, and we are fighting for fair wages and benefits for working people across the metro so we can begin to turn back the tide on our state’s awful economic and racial disparities.
Over 95% are people of color
How does this connect to King, you ask? Well, of the over 4,000 janitors in our union, over 95 percent are people of color. Our bargaining sessions are translated into three languages and our membership reflects the rich diversity of Minnesota today. We work for contractors to clean office buildings for some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the country, yet like many Minnesotans we are being pushed to do more and more while still fighting tooth and nail just to provide a better life for our children. While corporate profits continue to climb and average CEO pay now over 300 times what their employees makes, hard work is not being rewarded for far too many Minnesotans.
Many janitors in the Twin Cities clean the equivalent of over 20 homes per night, every single night. We work incredibly hard, doing work that often goes unnoticed in keeping the buildings of some of the largest corporations clean, yet we find ourselves fighting for pay and benefits that fairly reflect our hard work.
Like many jobs in our society over the last 30 years, productivity by workers has gone up while pay and benefits have dropped. In the janitor’s 1982 union contract, most workers were employed directly by the buildings — not sub-contractors — and earned $6.27 per hour ($15.42 in today’s dollars). They also had fair workloads, pensions (!) and good health-care benefits. Most of the janitors were white, and these were considered “good” jobs, but as buildings began subcontracting cleaning, real wages took a dive and employers recruited immigrants and people of color to take these jobs. There has been a corporate-led race to the bottom that allows people to imply janitorial, and many other formerly working-class jobs, are no longer jobs that deserve wages and benefits to support a family. This has been a national trend that has hurt working people of all races.
We know that raising the wage floor for all janitors in our union to $15 would pump tens of millions of dollars of spending into our communities. With almost all of our janitorial members from communities that have been directly impacted by the system that created our state’s racial and economic disparities, these millions would be an important step in our fight to close the racial and economic gaps plaguing our state.
A good place to start addressing disparities
If we want an immediate, private sector solution to take action addressing our racial and economic disparities, this would be a good place to start. As Dr. King said, we can begin to find “hope and progress.”
Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community.
— The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in speech given to the AFL-CIO Miami Beach, Fl Dec. II, 1961
King knew that you couldn’t fully fight racial disparities without addressing the economic reality facing families. He understood that we have many areas to fight to make our country more equal and just, but that when people come together in a union to fight for dignity, it moves the needle toward a fairer and more just society for everyone. In our fight for a new contract, we are rallying all people in our state to “Reclaim Your Dreams.”
We know that not only would better wages and benefits pump much needed resources into the community, it would help build momentum for the larger fight to create better lives for all working people in our state. It is hard to imagine that if King were still alive he would not be marching with the workers of every race who are fighting, and winning, the fight for $15 all across our country.
Bigger than one contract
We have been so thankful for the outpouring of support from the community as we’ve fought for a fair contract over the last few months. We know our fight is bigger than just winning a contract. It is a fight to change the reality facing too many people in our state, especially underpaid workers and people of color. Soon we will be taking a strike vote in light of our employer’s refusal to bargain in good faith to find a solution that moves our state in a better direction.
I want a brighter future for my children. I want a brighter future for all working people in our state. I want Minnesota to be a great place to live for everyone, and for us to finally close our painful racial and economic disparities. As we honor The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. today, let’s remember his deep commitment to racial and economic justice, and let’s commit to continuing the fight for which he gave his life.
Brahim Kone works as a janitor in St. Paul. He is a member of SEIU Local 26 and serves on the union’s executive board.
Want to add your voice?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at email@example.com.)