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

George Fish

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.

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George Fish, a freelance writer living in Indianapolis, has written for Dialogue & Initiative, Monthly Review, Political Affairs, Against the Current and Socialism and Democracy.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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