CLEVELAND, Ohio – They rallied in front of the Halle Building on Monday during the holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with some carrying this sign: “I AM A MAN”.
For many, the link between the sign and King is inextricable. Striking sanitation workers in Memphis carried that sign in 1968. King had gone to that city to support those workers in their struggle for higher wages and safer working conditions, when he was assassinated. Those who rallied Monday in Cleveland sought to invoke his spirit as a champion of workers’ rights in their present day struggle to ensure that working class workers here hold on to “decent” pay and benefits, which they say are threatened with being eroded.
At center of the rally were the contracts of janitors in the Service Employees International Union, Local 1, that are scheduled to expire in the spring.
“In commemoration of MLK and all of the work that he did with labor, we felt that it was fitting to make sure that the voices of the working people of our city are heard,” said Yanela Sims, Northern Ohio coordinator for the union. “We want our voices heard. Our objective is to gain fair contracts with good wages and benefits, so that people are able to take care of their kids and live productively.”
She said the Halle Building downtown on Euclid Avenue was chosen as the rally site for a reason. Sims said the building is being converted to housing, and the owner has no interest in keeping unionized janitors. As a result, six janitors lost jobs, she said.
The building is owned by the K&D Group. Doug Price, the company’s CEO, has not returned The Plain Dealer’s call regarding the matter.
Sims said firing unionized janitors as downtown commercial buildings convert to housing is becoming more common. In fact, she said K&D got rid of the four unionized janitors last year when the company bought the Leader Building in Cleveland to covert it to housing. Sims said the MLK Day rally served to put building owners with such intentions on notice.
“The next time a building owner decides they want to sweep up another building, and kick out the folks that work there, we are going to fight it,” she said to the cheering crowd of about 40. “We are going to fight to make sure good jobs stay in Cleveland.”
Sims said contracts for SEIU janitors are not just up this year at downtown buildings, but also at Cuyahoga Community College, John Carroll University and ArcelorMittal.
Angelique Tolbert, a janitor at ArcelorMittal, told those at the rally that the working class would have to fight back to keep from losing ground.
“It is easy to defeat one man, but with an army the fight is much easier,” she said. “I hear a lot of shouting about change. My question to you is, ‘When will you be tired? What are you ready to do for change?’
“I know I am tired now,” she said. “I am ready to fight for better wages, paid holidays, vacations and any other necessities that any other job would offer.”
Among the paid holidays Tolbert said she would have to fight for is MLK Day.
Gilbert Santos, a janitor at the Cuyahoga County building, who also spoke at the rally, echoed Tolbert’s call for unity.
“I am here because I believe in better wages and better working conditions,” he said. “If we stand together, we can definitely succeed together.”
After the rally in front of the Halle Building, participants marched along Euclid Avenue. They chanted, “We’re fired up. Won’t take it no more.” Many held signs with images of King or those with variations on the “I AM A MAN” sign, such as “I AM A WOMAN” and “I AM A JANITOR”.
Harriet Applegate, who heads the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor, said such a rally was a great way to celebrate the federal holiday.
“He died supporting workers in their attempt to get a voice at work and a better contract,” she said at the rally. “Because of these things, and because of his strong stand against right to work, he is every bit a labor hero as he is a civil rights hero. It is fitting to have this demonstration on this very, very important labor holiday.”