Meet the Janitors Taking On Big Pharma to Win a Livable Wage

George Fish November 2, 2018

Forty-four Indianapolis janitors and supporters were arrested after staging a sit-in at a busy downtown street intersection during the September 25 evening rush hour. (Photo: SEIU Local 1)

Forty-eight Indi­anapo­lis jan­i­tors and sup­port­ers, includ­ing two Indi­anapo­lis City-Coun­ty Coun­cil mem­bers, were arrest­ed while stag­ing a sit-in Octo­ber 25 at the inter­sec­tion next to the cor­po­rate head­quar­ters of Eli Lil­ly, Indiana’s rich­est corporation.

The phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal giant is Indianapolis’s lead­ing cor­po­rate phil­an­thropist, cur­rent­ly spear­head­ing a $13 mil­lion Unit­ed Way cam­paign to alle­vi­ate pover­ty, in a city where 1 in 5 res­i­dents lives in poverty.

But among the city’s poor are the sub­con­tract­ed jan­i­tors who clean Eli Lilly’s build­ings, who start at a mea­ger $9.75 an hour.

At the ral­ly, Lil­ly jan­i­tors shared sto­ries. One speak­er had been left home­less — unable to afford a secu­ri­ty deposit and first month’s rent com­bined, despite full-time work. A whop­ping 88 per­cent of the city’s union jan­i­tors can’t afford the health insur­ance offered.

Our lives, our chil­dren, and our future are at stake,” said Clarence Jones, one of the Lil­ly jan­i­tors who spoke at the rally.

As Lil­ly goes, so goes Indy

A month pri­or, 44 Indi­anapo­lis jan­i­tors and sup­port­ers were arrest­ed after stag­ing a sit-in at a busy down­town street inter­sec­tion dur­ing the Sep­tem­ber 25 evening rush hour.

Six hun­dred jan­i­tors are fight­ing for a new con­tract. They’re mem­bers of the Indi­anapo­lis branch of Ser­vice Employ­ees (SEIU) mega-local Local 1, employed by jan­i­to­r­i­al con­trac­tors to clean down­town Indy’s posh com­mer­cial offices, as well as the Eli Lil­ly campus.

Tar­get­ing Lil­ly plays an impor­tant role in activists’ cam­paigns, because as Lil­ly goes, so does the vast major­i­ty of Indi­anapo­lis busi­ness­es. The union says Lil­ly could eas­i­ly make sure the work­ers who clean its build­ings make a liv­ing wage and have decent health insur­ance, though a com­pa­ny spokesper­son told the Indy Star that since the jan­i­tors are employed by a sub­con­trac­tor, Lil­ly can’t be involved in negotiations.

The Sep­tem­ber and Octo­ber actions were care­ful­ly nego­ti­at­ed before­hand with the police, who blocked off oncom­ing traf­fic. Offi­cers read the demon­stra­tors their Miran­da rights and escort­ed them to wait­ing vehi­cles for arraign­ment. SEIU will pay the arrestees’ fines. These bits of polit­i­cal the­ater were designed to not just to inform the pub­lic and gar­ner exten­sive media cov­er­age (which they did), but also to demon­strate to the down­town build­ing man­agers, Eli Lil­ly, and the jan­i­to­r­i­al con­trac­tors that the union means seri­ous busi­ness in this con­tract fight.

Union jan­i­tors in Indi­anapo­lis aver­age only $10.70, low­er than in near­by cities. They often have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, even though the city’s down­town office rental rates are the high­est in the region. Few mem­bers of the large­ly Lati­no and Black work­force work full-time hours; they often get shifts of only four to six hours a night.

Con­tract, round two

Eight of the 12 major down­town jan­i­to­r­i­al con­trac­tors, includ­ing the con­trac­tor for Eli Lil­ly, are cov­ered under a mas­ter con­tract with SEIU. Union­iz­ing took a decade of hard fight­ing. The first con­tract, nego­ti­at­ed hasti­ly in 2015, left much to be desired in terms of wages and benefits.

In this round, jan­i­tors are push­ing for com­pre­hen­sive, afford­able health care for them­selves and their fam­i­lies, full-time work, paid sick days, and a $13 hourly start­ing wage by the end of the new con­tract, in 2021. Last year the Indi­anapo­lis City-Coun­ty Coun­cil passed a res­o­lu­tion pro­vid­ing a $13 liv­ing wage” to all munic­i­pal employ­ees. For a start, the union is demand­ing an imme­di­ate raise of 75 cents an hour, which would raise the start­ing wage from $9.75 to $10.50.

Since Feb­ru­ary, SEIU Local 1 and its sup­port­ers have orga­nized sev­er­al large demon­stra­tions, draw­ing sup­port from the local Steel­work­ers, Auto Work­ers, UNITE HERE, and Let­ter Car­ri­ers. Col­lege stu­dents have trav­eled from 60 miles away to join the actions, which have also gar­nered sup­port from Jobs with Jus­tice, Our Rev­o­lu­tion, and local immi­grant rights groups. The sup­port helped push the Indi­anapo­lis City-Coun­cil Coun­cil to pass a res­o­lu­tion call­ing for a $13-an-hour wage for the janitors.

Nego­ti­a­tions began on August 7. The con­trac­tors still haven’t offered full-time employ­ment to all who want it, and while con­ces­sions were made on health care, the con­trac­tors balked at going high­er than a $10.70 an hour start­ing salary for the life of the con­tract. The union is hope­ful that their recent high­ly-vis­i­ble actions will get them to budge.

Sav­ing union jobs

Last year the jan­i­tors union waged a months-long bat­tle to save jobs. The Gold Build­ing, one of down­town Indy’s major office build­ings, had dropped its union con­trac­tor in favor of the fierce­ly anti-union con­trac­tor Bull­dog, slash­ing wages and work­ing con­di­tions for the jan­i­tors who stayed.

The local orga­nized the affect­ed jan­i­tors to demand the return of a union con­trac­tor, sought sup­port from office work­ers in the build­ing, and helped mem­bers trans­fer to union jan­i­to­r­i­al jobs elsewhere.

The union even trained sup­port­ers for a civ­il dis­obe­di­ence action at the Gold Build­ing. The day before the sched­uled action, how­ev­er, build­ing man­agers caved in and agreed to bring back the pre­vi­ous union con­trac­tor. The planned protest ral­ly turned into a vic­to­ry rally.

About a month lat­er, when the union con­trac­tor resumed oper­at­ing jan­i­to­r­i­al ser­vices at the Gold Build­ing, Local 1 held a wel­com­ing demon­stra­tion for the union jan­i­tors return­ing to their for­mer jobs. That also served as an out­reach oppor­tu­ni­ty to new hires.

This arti­cle first appeared on Labor Notes.

George Fish, a free­lance writer liv­ing in Indi­anapo­lis, has writ­ten for Dia­logue & Ini­tia­tive, Month­ly Review, Polit­i­cal Affairs, Against the Cur­rent and Social­ism and Democ­ra­cy.
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