Janitors from Columbus and Cincinnati rally outside Cincinnati's Great American Tower to kick off bargaining for a new union contract.

Diane Hudson wants a new union contract that will bring her family out of poverty. She works as a janitor at the Columbus Academy, a private PreK-12 school in Gahanna. Hudson supports her elderly mother and struggles every month to make ends meet. A living wage would mean “we don’t have to be under so much stress, living paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

On October 29 hundreds of janitors held a rally at the Great American Tower in Cincinnati to kick off contract negotiations. The new contracts will affect 1,800 members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 in central and southern Ohio, including 800 janitors who work in the Columbus area. The current Columbus contract, which expires December 31, covers  janitors who clean the offices of Columbus’ largest companies, including Nationwide, Huntington, JP Morgan Chase, and AEP.

Benefits are also an issue for Diane Hudson. “I’d like to get paid for PTO time,” she said. “Often when I put in for it, it’s denied. We also need a better health plan.” Hudson is not on her company’s insurance plan because she cannot afford the high premiums. “It would mean a great deal to me to be able to go to the doctor when I need to,” she said.

Hudson’s employer is Scioto Services, a cleaning company that contracts janitorial services to the Columbus Academy. Full-time tuition at Columbus Academy ranges from $17,500 to $25,000 a year. Its annual operating budget is $25.7 million.

Employers’ failure to adequately compensate their workers pushes part of the burden onto taxpayers. Many janitors in Columbus qualify for public assistance programs, such as food stamps (SNAP). The average downtown janitor is paid a little over $16,000 a year.

The janitors’ goal is to move toward a $15 per hour wage over the life of the new contract. “Janitors are in a fight for our dignity, our lives and our jobs,” said SEIU Local 1 Southern Ohio Coordinator LaToyia Comb at the Cincinnati rally. “But more important than that, we are in a fight for the future of our city. Our community needs good jobs that will allow us all to contribute to the economic health of our city. Our future is at stake and the men and women standing here are ready to stand up for the type of family-sustaining jobs we need.”

Columbus janitors’ previous contract was ratified in 2013 after a year-long struggle while working without a contract. Janitors went on strike in multiple Columbus office buildings. Janitors and supporters were arrested during sit-ins at the Fifth Third Bank and PNC Bank buildings.

Employees alleged that cleaning companies had repeatedly violated federal law by harassing and intimidating them after they called for job improvements. The janitors' struggle garnered support from religious leaders, elected officials, and community groups in central Ohio. In winning the contract, many full-time janitors were saved from having their hours cut to part-time and losing company benefits. They also won a 20 cent per hour pay increase.

SEIU Local 1 represents nearly 50,000 janitors, security officers, and food service workers in the Midwest. The parent organization, SEIU, is the fastest-growing union in North America.