As Columbus celebrated the life of civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr. yesterday, janitors held a short rally in front of the Huntington building at Broad and High Streets to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy of advocacy for low-wage workers.
The janitors marched with community and faith leaders, carrying signs saying “I am a man” and “I am a woman,” recalling the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, when Dr. King called for fair pay, safe working conditions, and the right for black sanitation workers to unionize.
“In 1968, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ as a vehicle to fight for economic and racial justice,” said Laurie Couch of SEIU Local 1. “Then, as now, the vast majority of workers consigned to poverty-wage jobs were people of color.”
While the overall poverty rate for the Columbus area is 15.7%, the rates are significantly higher for Latinos (27.2%) and African Americans (32.1%), Couch said.
“I’m a single father of a seven-year old boy,” said Bobby Copley, a janitor who works at the Huntington building. “I’m doing it all on my own. Ten dollars an hour just isn’t cutting it.”
Copley has worked for the cleaning contractor Professional Maintenance for two years, but has not been able to get full-time hours, and therefore is not eligible for health coverage. “We all get sick, and we all need health care,” he said. “We need to stick together and fight this fight, like Martin Luther King did.”
Dwayne Paige works full-time as a janitor at the Franklin County Courthouse, but still struggles to support his wife and 16-year-old daughter. “She’s smart and curious, and she works so hard,” Paige said of his daughter. “I would do anything for her. But I worry we’ll never be able to afford to send her to college.”
The janitors have been working without a contract since December 1. The main issues in contract negotiations are wages and health coverage. According to the SEIU, the average janitor in Columbus is paid less than $18,200 a year. The 2012 federal poverty line for a family of four was $23,050.
Collective bargaining between the janitors and their employers is scheduled to resume on January 29.