When a representative from SEIU Local 1 first showed up at Bobby Copley’s door in Columbus, Ohio, about two years ago, “I was about to throw her out of the house. I was totally anti-union,” says Copley.
Now, Copley, 34, is one of almost 1,000 union janitors in Columbus who may go on strike to demand better wages and working conditions. Janitors like Copley, who has an eight-year-old son, earn on average just $18,000 a year, according to SEIU Local 1, struggling to make ends meet while working tiring jobs that often put them in contact with caustic chemicals.
Columbus janitors have been unionized since 2007 and have signed contracts with contractors including ABM, Professional Maintenance, Mid-American Cleaning Contractors and Scioto to clean the corporate offices of companies like Huntington Bank, JPMorgan Chase, American Electric Power and Nationwide Insurance.
In early August, the employers proposed a contract that would shift more janitors from full-time to part-time work and increase the cost of health insurance. The union is demanding full-time work, higher wages and affordable benefits. Janitors have been working without a contract since January, and in August, contract negotiations stalled, SEIU Local 1 spokesperson Izabela Miltko told In These Times. On July 20, the membership voted unanimously to authorize a strike when union representatives decide it is necessary.
“Columbus janitors are taking a stand for the good jobs that our city desperately needs: full time jobs with fair wages and affordable health care,” Miltko told In These Times. “But some of the companies have responded to their employees’ efforts with threats and intimidation. Until those contractors end their campaign of intimidation and retaliation, janitors have decided they must strike over the alleged unfair labor practices.”
As Labor Day reminds Americans to think about workers' rights and the role of organized labor in building our country, it’s worth noting that the Columbus janitors represent the modern face of the labor movement. Many thousands of manufacturing jobs have been offshored and lost to automation over the years, but the service sector has continued to grow as jobs like janitorial work, retail and health care can’t be outsourced. Unfortunately temporary and part-time work at low wages with few benefits is often the norm for such service sector employment.
“Labor Day is an occasion for celebrating working people in this country,” said Miltko. “But sadly, janitors in Columbus who are standing up for good jobs are faced with retaliation at work. They are poised to strike and are uniting to restore the middle class, bring good jobs to Columbus and raise wages for all working people so that their families and all Americans are a little more prosperous come next Labor Day.”
An SEIU Local 1 press document describes the situation of Columbus janitor Adilo Muse, who has four kids and an ailing mother. She works part-time cleaning the Lazarus Building in downtown Columbus. Muse’s husband works temporary jobs with erratic schedules, and the couple can’t afford day care. So, the document notes:
“If her husband is working, her mom has to watch the children when Adilo goes to work. Despite this, Adilo wants more hours – because if she was full-time, she would qualify for health care and vacation days. With no sick days and a ‘four-strike’ point system that can get her fired if she misses work, she can’t afford to take days off to care for her children or for herself.”
Copley, who grew up a “country boy” in an Ohio farm town, worked for 15 years as a short order cook before taking the janitorial job two years ago. He’s never had health insurance, and he’s currently struggling to pay off more than $30,000 in medical bills. He struggles with chronic muscular and skeletal aches in his chest that often make it feel like he’s having a heart attack. Uninsured, he worries what would happen if he really did have a heart attack.
Copley works night shifts cleaning the corporate headquarters of Huntington Bank; he estimates that he covers about 480 cubicles on the executive floor each shift. He previously cleaned restrooms, using chemicals “that dry out your skin.” He makes $10 an hour, which barely covers his rent for the apartment that he shares with a roommate.
“These companies need to realize they wouldn’t be pocketing millions and millions of dollars each year if it weren’t for people like us,” Copley told In These Times. “They need to get their heads out of the clouds. We’re all working people, we’re all out here trying to make a living and do the best that we can to survive in today’s society. It’s hard. That’s what they’re not seeing, sitting back in their easy chairs and raking in all this money, they don’t know what it’s like to be out here struggling from paycheck to paycheck.”
Copley has had a change of heart since his anti-union days, having participated in leadership trainings with the union. Copley, who is half Native American, is particularly interested in encouraging immigrant workers to stand up for their rights.
“These employers like to take advantage of them,” he said. “They come to live in our country to be free—not to be taken advantage of and mistreated.”
Copley thinks a strike could be “a good thing.”
“It’s going to bring not just all the janitors together—it could bring the Columbus community together as one instead of fighting against each other,” Copley said. “If we don’t stand up and fight for what we believe in, we’re not going to get the respect we deserve.”