Janitors from Columbus and Cincinnati kicked off contract negotiations with a rally outside Cincinnati's Great American Tower on October 29.

It seems that the cleaning companies who employ janitors in Columbus have awakened to a new reality: they are dealing with a fighting union. On December 3 about 750 Columbus janitors ratified a new 3-year contract. Negotiations were concluded much more swiftly than for the previous contract, and the janitors’ employers made significant concessions.

The janitors, who are members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1, will receive between $2000 and $3000 more in wages per year over the life of the contract. The contract also strengthens protections for members, including discrimination for sexual orientation and gender identity. It also adds funeral leave for the first time.

The cleaning companies probably didn’t want a repeat of 2013, when the janitors organized numerous protests, held rolling strikes in downtown Columbus office buildings, and were arrested during sit-ins at Fifth Third Bank and PNC Bank.

“This contract will allow janitors, who perform difficult and thankless work, the ability to provide for their families and their communities,” said SEIU Local 1 member Diane Hudson. “The increase in pay is significant and that will make a huge difference in my life. As someone who is caring for an aging parent, time is very important to me, but so is knowing that I can afford to pay my bills. The increased wages will allow me to spend more time caring for my mother and doing things with my family.”

During the contract negotiations, all members of Columbus City Council, and President John O’Grady and Marilyn Brown of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners, signed a letter in support of the janitors. “No one should have to work two jobs to make ends meet,” the letter stated. “That’s why we are encouraged by some of the progress that has been made through the collective bargaining efforts between representatives of the Columbus janitors and the janitorial contractors. Our hope is that the final result yields reasonable wage increases, which raise economic standards for working families in our city, provide them with a pathway out of poverty, and allow them to contribute even more to Columbus’ economy.”

The new contract is a significant improvement, raising the janitors’ average annual wage from less than $16,000 to nearly $19,000. However, a living wage is still out of reach for most janitors covered under the contract. According to MIT’s living wage calculation for Franklin County, a living wage for a single adult is $20,335. For an adult supporting one child, a living wage is $44,493. The figures are higher for larger families.

Still, SEIU Local 1 members are much better off than the janitors who work in Columbus office buildings that are not union shops. But in addition to serving its own members, SEIU’s efforts are also helping to establish a union standard wage in Columbus. According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, union wages indirectly benefit non-union workers by forcing their employers to pay more competitive wages.