Chicago janitors represented by SEIU* Local 1 took to the streets Thursday morning as they began gearing up for pending contract negotiations.
SEIU Local 1 leaders and dozens of Chicago custodians from institutional and commercial services kicked off their 2015 janitorial contract campaign on the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Their contracts are set to expire in April.
The unionized janitors, including many who clean Chicago Public Schools (CPS) buildings, rolled out their campaign calling for better wages and benefits outside of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School, 4445 S. Drexel Boulevard.
"Of course, Martin Luther King, he stood for many things, but people fail to realize he died supporting the sanitation strike in Memphis, supporting sanitation workers who were being treated unfair," said Lonnell Saffold, director of institutional services for SEIU Local 1. "We believe that it's only right we be here to commemorate him and realize that his struggle is not going to die."
"We're going to keep fighting in his name to let everyone know that every janitor, every custodian, every office worker, everybody who believes in what he believed in, who dared to dream -- we're here to support that," Saffold added. "We're going to keep moving forward until we achieve that."
Roughly 10,000 commercial and 2,000 institutional Chicago-area janitors represented by SEIU Local 1 will be affected by the expiration of contract agreements beginning in April, union leaders said.
The labor union will host a local convention on January 31 to lay out its specific contract demands. Contract negotiations are expected to start in the first week of March, according to union representatives.
"We would definitely want to see a good raise," Saffold said. "To me, a good wage is a 5 percent increase."
Most SEIU-represented janitors in Chicago earn hourly wages between $12.95 and $16.35, according to the union's leaders.
SEIU, Saffold added, is also hoping to achieve some "staffing improvements" for custodians working in CPS buildings. The recent privatization of CPS custodial services has lead to janitorial layoffs.
"They're trying to do more with less, and they're putting all the additional work on janitors (who are) left behind," Saffold said. "We got to get the staffing levels back to the way they were so that people are not killing themselves trying to earn a living."
Lamont Christmas, a janitor for 17 years, works at Edward A. Bouchet Math and Science Academy, a public school in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood. Christmas said he and other janitors are "fighting for their jobs" and "fighting to stay afloat" financially.
"We want to be respected for (our) years of service," he added. "And we want to keep our job ... We work our butt off. And this is how we get treated. Now that you don't have any more need for us, you want to call in ... people with less experience and less pay."
"I've been (a CPS janitor for) 17 years," he added. "I'm not doing this for nothing. This is my livelihood."
Here's more from Christmas, Saffold and the campaign kick off:
SEIU janitorial contract campaigns will be launching in other cities and states in the coming months.
"Chicago is the first city with a contract expiring in April 2015, but this is just the beginning of a 2015-2016 bargaining cycle that is going to affect over 200,000 janitors nationwide," said Dariusz Kozinski, commercial division director for SEIU Local 1.
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