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Just Work: It's Up to Us to Turn Minimum into Livable

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My momma used to say, "Anything worth having, you must work hard for." It's the truth. But if you're a janitor or working some other low-paid job in America today, you can't just work hard; you've got to work smart.

You see, I'm one of those workers you read about that busts his butt every day, but still can't afford to pay rent. From 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. every night I clean the 9th and 10th floor of the Cincinnati Textile Building. Just as you are sitting down to eat dinner with your kids, I'm turning your messy office into a sparkling fresh work space. I get paid $6.85 per hour to clean more than 20 bathroom stalls, to take out and scrub over 200 trash cans, and to clean up the office spaces of guys making at least three times my wages. Even when my supervisor gives me overtime, I'm bringing in less than $30 a day. That's less than $600 a month.

My situation used to make me angry and frustrated all the time. Here I am paying my taxes; I'm paying my dues; I'm working my way up. But I'm still broke. At age 29 -- a grown man -- I live with my mom because I can't afford $200 monthly rent for subsidized housing. Working but still broke? It just doesn't make any sense.

A couple years ago, I stopped kicking at doors and turned my anger into power. I began to realize that millions of my fellow janitors, doormen, security guards, dishwashers, and other service workers were living the same struggle. Just in Cincinnati, thousands of building maintenance workers, some of them older than my parents, had been trapped their entire lives. They have been working everyday, trying to budget pennies, some have been in and out of homeless shelters, and none of them have been able to get ahead. For some reason, their stories made me look at my own life from a different perspective. I wasn't going to wallow in my own tough luck anymore.

That's when I heard about workers' unions. See, I always wanted to change things, but my anger and self pity weren't getting me anywhere. I started to learn that workers joining together and standing up for our rights is the only way to get the top dog to listen. It took a lot of meetings and a lot of extra unpaid hours, but last month about 1,200 of us Cincinnati janitors went from low wages with no respect, to growing wages and the knowledge that we've got the tools to change our situation.

You may have read about us -- the Justice for Janitors campaign in Cincinnati made headlines across the state and around the world. For me, the wins meant a lot more than doubling my salary in five years, vacation time, or access to health care for the first time in my life. I learned to respect myself for the work I do. I learned how to get other people to respect me for the contributions I make as a service worker in America. And I learned that I can clear the path so that others coming after me don't have to put up with poverty wages and no respect on the job.

Too many of us -- middle America, corporate America, and those of us struggling at the bottom of America -- have forgotten what it is like to a part of something bigger than ourselves. Not while I'm on this earth. I know that the trials and tribulations of my life are just going to become the stories of opportunity I tell my children someday. It's another full time job -- but we've got to come together in times of turmoil. Right now, low-wage workers in America are in a crisis and unions are our answer. Joining together and standing up for our rights is what we've got to do if we're going to turn minimum wages into livable wages in this country.

Click here to listen to rap song Craig wrote about the Cincinnati Justice for Janitors Campaign.

Craig Jones is a janitor for Professional Maintenance, a cleaning contractor that serves the Cincinnati Textile Building, and a member the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local 3. Craig was a key leader in the Cincinnati Justice for Janitors Campaign, a city-wide property service contract that doubled the income of nearly 1200 janitors. Since joining SEIU, Craig has made community organizing his second full-time job. He's also an accomplished rapper, who hopes to make a career in music someday. Click here to listen to one of Craig's songs.

Just Work is a series presented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to give a voice to working people to discuss their daily struggles to balance work, afford life and participate in a more just society. SEIU welcomes submissions to Just Work! Please send your story (800 words or less) to ali.jost@seiu.org.

About SEIU
The 1.9 million-member SEIU is the fastest-growing union in North America. SEIU members are winning better wages, health care, and more secure jobs for our communities, while uniting their strength with their counterparts around the world to help ensure that workers, not just corporations and CEOs, benefit from today's global economy.

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