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Seeking to strengthen America’s beleaguered middle class, janitors across the country this week will mark the 21st Annual Justice for Janitors Day by protesting an economy that many consider unbalanced, unjust, and unfair.
“The middle class in this country is under the gun,” says Martha Martinez, a janitor employed by ABM at the Century City Towers in Los Angeles. “While big corporations are getting all the money, a lot of people don’t have jobs. And even more people are working for a living but not making a living.”
June 15 is the 21st anniversary of the brutal 1990 clubbing by Los Angeles police officers of low-wage janitors protesting in the city’s ritzy Century City district. Violent images of police quashing the protest were seen around the world, galvanizing public opinion in favor of the janitors, who subsequently won their first union contract. Their movement, “Justice for Janitors,” lifted thousands out of poverty. But with rising prices in recent years, janitors, like many Americans, have seen their standard of living erode. Cleaners are again speaking out for fair wages, quality affordable healthcare, and full-time, family-sustaining jobs for their communities.
This week janitors will lead or participate in protests calling for economic justice in 15 U.S. cities–Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Florham Park, N.J., Hartford, Conn., Irvine, Calif., Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Stamford, Conn., Washington DC, and White Plains, N.Y.
SEIU members have provided a voice for the voiceless for ninety years. From our beginnings as one of the country’s first racially integrated unions to our historic support for marriage equality in 2004 to our work to win justice for immigrants, SEIU has a long history of standing up and speaking out for equality.
SEIU’s history as a force for civil rights began with its founding as one of the first integrated unions. African Americans held leadership roles such as Vice President from the very beginning and AFL founder Sam Gompers even called the janitors union “too diverse.” SEIU’s leadership on civil rights continued as SEIU President David Sullivan marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 despite the refusal of the AFL-CIO to endorse King’s march on Washington.
SEIU 1199 Healthcare Workers East has an especially a proud history of civil rights activism–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called it “his favorite union” and he considered himself “a fellow 1199-er.” King suggested to 1199 “that if all of labor would emulate what you have been doing over the years, our nation would be closer to victory in the fight to eliminate poverty and injustice.”
Women’s rights are civil rights and SEIU members have marched, organized, and lobbied elected officials to create a better country for working women. A majority of SEIU’s members are women and many work in so-called “pink collar” professions such as nursing, social work, and childcare. And in 2008, Worker’s United–which descended from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union–affiliated with SEIU. Along the way, SEIU has consistently advocated for improved access to childcare, funding for women’s health, and other policies that make a difference in the lives of women across the country.