Trying to Make A Decent Living

Time Magazine - June 18, 2006
   

While some janitors struggle to get by, others are climbing into the middle class. Behind the new battle over America’s low-wage workers
By Jeremy Caplan

Time Magazine

It’s 9 P.M., and Craig Jones has just finished dumping 400 trash cans’ worth of garbage into the Cincinnati Textile Building’s basement compactor. The weighty refuse he carries each night hardly fazes Jones after five years on the job, but the grime he has to scrub off dirty wastebaskets still gets to him a little. “Wiping spit is a tough thing to get used to,” he says. Jones, 27, earns $6.50 an hour without benefits, vacation time or sick days. His employer, Professional Maintenance, a cleaning contractor, usually schedules him for just four hours a night, five nights a week, so Jones’ biweekly paycheck amounts to about $260, before taxes. The monthly rent for his spartan ground-level apartment in a once industrial part of town is $215, so there’s little left after phone and utility bills and food. He hasn’t bought a new piece of clothing in years.

Less than 300 miles away, Robyn Gray is in the midst of cleaning 48 kitchenettes, dusting 90 conference rooms and scrubbing 40 glass doors at One Mellon Center, a financial building in downtown Pittsburgh, Pa. Although her work is equally grueling, Gray, 44, is paid well, compared with Cincinnati, Ohio, janitors like Jones. For working a 9:30 p.m.-to-6 a.m., 40-hr.-a-week schedule, she earns $12.52 an hour and gets health insurance, three weeks’ vacation and three personal days a year. Her $26,000 annual salary has helped Gray and her husband–who works for a company that erects cell-phone towers–buy their own home, send their two daughters to college and even go on the occasional family vacation–in May they took their first trip to Honolulu, Hawaii.

The major difference between Gray and Jones, say advocates for low-wage workers, is that she lives in a city where janitors are unionized and have collectively negotiated salaries considerably above the minimum wage, what they call a living wage. The living-wage movement has been building steam as outsourcing moves millions of relatively high-wage manufacturing jobs overseas, leaving behind less mobile, low-paying ones such as health-care aides, security guards and janitors. But it may have got a new burst of energy when the Change to Win Federation, made up of seven labor unions that split from the AFL-CIO last year to focus more directly on the lives of low-wage Americans, officially launched its first national initiative on April 24. Dubbed Make Work Pay!, the campaign aims to convince the public in 35 U.S. cities that all Americans who work hard deserve to earn a wage they can live on. “Someone working full time should be able to support themselves and their family,” says Anna Burger, Change to Win’s chairwoman.

The new campaign’s supporters range from clergy like the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., former president of the Baptist Ministers Conference, to politicians like former North Carolina Senator and likely presidential contender John Edwards. “The perception exists that [a living wage] is not a politically popular subject, and that people in general aren’t interested in it,” Edwards says. “But my feelings now on the subject are stronger than they’ve ever been. You can’t live on $6, $7 or $8 an hour and have anything to fall back on. Instead of getting ahead, which most families want to focus on, they’re focused on survival.”

The model Edwards and others want to replicate is the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) Justice for Janitors campaign, which over the past 20 years has helped to raise wages for workers in 27 cities, including Boston, Houston and Pittsburgh. Last week SEIU organized Justice for Janitors Day, with public protests in cities around the country. One of the key battlegrounds of the new offensive is Cincinnati, which gained 8,400 service jobs in 2004 alone. “It’s a crucial test,” says Stephen Lerner, head of SEIU’s property workers’ division. “What happens in Cincinnati is more of a lens into the future of work in this country than what happens in New York City or Los Angeles. It’s workers in these smaller cities doing the low-wage work who set the tone for how workers are treated throughout this country.” SEIU’s primary strategy is to show how higher wages and job benefits have improved not only the finances of workers like Gray but also the lives of their families and the economic and social welfare of the cities in which they live.

Pittsburgh is its Exhibit A. Once hailed as America’s Iron City, Pittsburgh has gone from a manufacturing stronghold to a service-dominated economy, a shift that is evident in its abundance of converted mills. The Homestead Grays Bridge, near the site of the famous 1892 steel-mill strike considered by many to be the birthplace of the labor movement, now overlooks a Filene’s Basement and a Barnes & Noble, instead of the towering smokestacks that once defined the city skyline. The first Justice for Janitors initiative began there in 1985. The campaign sparked an 18-month standoff in which employers locked out unionized workers and brought in replacements willing to work for lower wages. The janitors eventually triumphed, and in the years since they have bargained their way to health-care coverage, personal days and vacation time. When Gray recently told a group of Cincinnati janitors about her wages, health-care coverage and vacation time, “they didn’t believe me,” she says. “They wanted to see my pay stub.”

The city appears to have benefited too. In Pittsburgh neighborhoods with high concentrations of janitors and other service workers, high school graduation rates and home ownership rates have risen steadily over the past two decades, according to Census data. Among janitors surveyed by SEIU, the rate of home ownership had grown to 57% by 2005, an increase of nearly 20% since 1990. Meanwhile the number of families below the poverty line has fallen.

As janitors’ wages have risen, salaries for other Pittsburgh jobs have followed suit. Security guards, for instance, working in buildings where unionized janitorial workers are employed, have seen their earnings advance in parallel. Over the past three years, the median household income in the city has grown nearly 3%, from $39,643 to $40,699, adjusted for inflation. And annual janitorial-job turnover, as high as 300% in Cincinnati, is just one-tenth that rate in Pittsburgh. As a result, contractors’ costs for recruitment and training are significantly lower. “For a community and its families, wage gains for low-income workers mean the difference between living precariously at the edge of the economy and having a stake in the American Dream,” says Beth Schulman, author of “The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans.”

Cincinnati shares many attributes with Pittsburgh. Both are Rust Belt cities with midsize populations–314,000 for Cincinnati and 322,000 for Pittsburgh–and workforces similar in size and composition. Each has seen its once mighty manufacturing base crumble, with Cincinnati losing 17,000 manufacturing jobs over the past decade and Pittsburgh 22,600. But they diverge in their treatment of janitors and other low-wage service workers, and living-wage advocates say the results are telling. In Cincinnati neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine and the West End, where Jones lives, poor wages coupled with high rates of drug use, street violence and truancy have created a cycle of interdependent problems. More than half the adult black males in the two neighborhoods are without full-time work. In the West End alone, 76.5% of the children under 5 are living in poverty, and per capita income is $9,759 a year.

Still, achieving the Change to Win Federation’s goals in Cincinnati won’t be easy. Opponents of living-wage proposals argue that they will do more economic harm than good. The Employment Policies Institute (EPI, a Washington think tank known for its industry funding and pro-business positions, released a study in March claiming that a proposed bill to raise Ohio’s minimum wage (at $4.25, one of the lowest in the country) could lead to a $308 million hit on the Ohio economy and the loss of 12,000 jobs. John Doyle, EPI’s managing director, says that state and federal earned income tax credits and worker training would be more effective in helping low-wage workers rise out of poverty. “If employers are forced to increase wages,” says Doyle, “jobs will be eliminated, there will be a decrease in the number of hours worked, and these low-skilled adults may find themselves out on the street.”

Studies cited by liberal-leaning research organizations such as the Economic Policy Institute, the Fiscal Policy Institute and Policy Matters Ohio, however, show that minimum-wage laws rarely lower employment. “We now have 19 states that have raised their minimum wages above the federal minimum, and nothing like that kind of effect has occurred,” says Jared Bernstein, senior economist for the Economic Policy Institute. “In the best research done by nonpartisan academics, the impact of moderate wage increases on job growth and displacement is about zero.”

Daniel Radford, who served as executive secretary of the Cincinnati AFLCIO Labor Council from 1984 to 2005, laments that the standard of living for workers in his hometown has failed to keep pace with that of similar workers in Pittsburgh. “They’ve got high union density, politicians in their pocket and strong community support,” says Radford. “But Cincinnati is completely different. It’s a tough town for workers.”

Craig Jones knows that firsthand. It is 10 p.m., and he is back home after another four-hour janitorial shift. He microwaves a Stouffer’s dinner and grabs a Coke from his cabinet, which is mainly stocked with canned corn and some pumpkin filling that Jones got from a food pantry around Thanksgiving. He has been looking for a better-paying job during his off-hours but hasn’t found one, so he is pinning his hopes on the Justice for Janitors campaign. “I’m not looking for a handout,” he says. “But I feel like I’m stuck.”

Print Friendly