A Clergyman’s Support for Striking Janitors

This column also ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on May 26, 2008. 

Last week Maria stopped by my office to talk to me about her desire to get out of poverty.  For thirteen years she has worked 40 hours a week as a janitor at the Palo Alto headquarters of Hewlett Packard, one of Silicon Valley’s largest and wealthiest corporations. Under the terms of her current contract with Somer Building Management, the janitorial contractor who employs her, she is unable to earn more than the eleven dollars an hour with which she supports a disabled husband and a teenaged son.

Those eleven dollars an hour don’t go very far. Maria’s annual gross earnings from cleaning up after the engineers at HP are less than a thousand dollars over the federal poverty line. Her take-home pay places Maria’s family well below the poverty threshold, and it’s important to remember that the Federal Government’s figures on poverty are not adjusted for a region’s cost of living. The same numbers are used to establish the poverty line in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Appalachia. Maria tells me that close to two-thirds of her take-home pay goes to pay her rent, and I believe it. Maria and I live in the same East San Jose neighborhood. It is among the region’s lowest rent districts, and my family—with no consumer debt and an income of nearly four times that of Maria’s—sometimes finds it hard to afford the cost of living. To make ends meet, Maria works an extra twenty hours a week as a janitor at Macy’s.

Maria told me that she’d like a raise. She’s hoping that, with the help of her union, her wages will increase to  fifteen dollars an hour over the next three years—Maria’s union won similar wage concessions for janitors in Los Angeles two weeks ago. When we spoke, Maria reported that her employer was offering Maria and her fellow janitors a raise of thirty to forty cents an hour over three years. She also said that her health benefits—the one bright spot in her compensation (she pays $30 a month for her family’s coverage at Kaiser)—is on the chopping block. If Maria’s fears are realized, she will start paying more than $600 each month for her family’s medical insurance, with only an extra hourly dime or so thrown in each year to make up the difference. These are reasonable requests, yet she asked me to make up a pseudonym for her—“Maria”—lest her employer punish her for going public with her desire not to live in poverty.

At the end of April the contract between Bay Area janitors and their employers expired. The folks who actually are engaged in active negotiations are unable to disclose the details of the various offers and counter offers on the table, but it’s safe to say that a great deal of space exists between management and labor. So far, negotiations have proved to be unsuccessful; janitors in the Bay Area started walking off the job on Tuesday.

But why should someone like me care? I’m not a janitor, and the guy who cleans my church is a part-time employee of our congregation, and our church is not a union shop. Which dog in this fight belongs to people like me?

The answer is that no one benefits from the poverty of the janitors in Silicon Valley. Insofar as poor families rely more heavily upon public support for medical care and nutritional supplements such as the WIC program and free school meals, the refusal of Maria’s employer to pay her more than a poverty level wage does not mean that she and her family will go hungry or will lack medical care, it just means that tax payers like me will foot the bill. Maria came to my office expressing a desire to join the ranks of taxpayers who put more into the system than they take out. Economically, it makes good sense to welcome her and her fellow janitors into the lower middle class.

Of course I’m not an economist, I’m a clergyman. I deal in issues of justice and morality more than in economics, and if supporting the financial aspiration of the striking janitors makes economic sense, there is no question that their cause is as moral as it is just. I don’t want to live in a community where someone who works hard at an honest job must live in poverty. As much as our nation’s economy struggles through hard times, people around the world still are buying computers and high tech gadgetry. Hewlett Packard, whose cubicles and hallways and toilets Maria has been cleaning for thirteen years, just reported 28.3 billion dollars in revenue for the last quarter.  If any industry in any region in the country has the economic viability to support a janitor’s living wage, it is the high tech industry in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Let’s give Maria a decent raise. We have no excuse.

11 thoughts on “A Clergyman’s Support for Striking Janitors

  1. Do you not have a minimum wage in the US? I think the minimum wage in the UK is something like £5.52. not that far off $11 an hour. Meanwhile the rich get richer……

  2. Craig,

    Our minimum wages in the United States are an embarrassment: $5.85/hour according to the federal government and $8.00/hour in California. It was a long struggle to get Gov. Schwarzenegger to go that high.

    The reasoning behind our low minimum wage is that low wages allow teenagers to have summer jobs. But I wonder if the legislators have been looking at the cost of gas recently, or the cost of a college educations. Even bucks an hour will get a person nowhere.

    Ben

  3. We celebrated Memorial Day at the home of a friend who works for Intel. We talked together about the striking janitors, and he asked a good question: “Intel,” he said, “earned seven billion dollars last year. What if we’d only earned six, but we’d paid all of our janitors and our admins a decent, living wage? Would it have killed us?”

    It’s a good question.

  4. I’d be curious to know more about Maria’s circumstances, and what, if anything she’s doing to improve her situation.

    If she were to hire on as a janitor with a school district or other government agency, for instance, she might make more money and certainly would have more and better benefits than she ever will have working for an HP contractor.

    Has she any English language skills? If she can read English she likely can get a mail room job here in the Santa Clara Valley that will pay $12.50 – $15 per hour to start. Can she legally drive, read and follow directions? As a cab driver she could earn on the order of $45,000/year — certainly better than she’s doing now.

    Has she looked into any of the many outreach programs available from San Jose or from Santa Clara County for folks in her circumstances? (I assume she is a citizen or is here legally, hence can meet the initial qualification requirement. If she is not a citizen or a legal resident alien, she needs to be back in country of origin.) Ditto, food stamps.

    Bottom line, though, one typically is paid commensurate with what one’s skills command in the marketplace; unionization can leverage that a bit. But anyone who wants to make more than a janitor is paid needs to get a different job.

  5. Bill, what if she likes her job? I’m sure all she is asking for is a decent standard of living wage. Surely it’s no bad thing to ask for in a country like the USA.

  6. Bill,

    I think Craig makes a good point, and I’d add to it the following thoughts, which were inspired by an email I got from my mother:

    It wasn’t too long ago that a person could made a decent living as a janitor. No one ever got rich at it, but a person raise a family doing the job. Not any more. So I’d have to ask, how many jobs are we, as a society, willing to remove from the list of those at which a person can make a realistic living? Will we let mechanics earn poverty wages? Teachers? Most paramedics already earn near-poverty wages, will nurses be next? I believe that there has to be options for those who don’t do well in school. Not everyone can work at a desk. Not everyone can qualify for Rotary. There has to be jobs available for those who don’t go to college or who immigrate to this country without too much in the way of English language facility. I’m not saying these people deserve to get rich, but they should be able to pay the bills, eat, buy cloths, etc.

    Best,

    Ben

  7. Ben, you and Craig seem to be convinced that everyone has a “right” to a “living wage,” whatever that may be. We pretty much guarantee equality of opportunity in this country, a prospect I believe in, which is why I suggested possible options that Maria might be able to explore. You and Craig seem to be suggesting equality of outcome, which is a nice, touchy-feely, reliably socialist proposition. Also an unbelievably stupid, and in the long term unworkable, prospect.

    While we’re at it, could you please cite the information behind the claim re: the salary of paramedics? I can’t believe they are paid at the poverty level. You also mention nurses; I know they are not.

    Bill

  8. Bill,

    I’m not sure I would say that I think people should have a “right” to a minimum wage as I would say that I think paying people a living wage is the right thing to do, and not just for the employees either. It is the right thing for all of society. When people earn more money crime goes down, dependence on the public trough goes down. Everyone benefits. More money is spent, which creates more jobs and generates more economic growth. I don’t see how providing for a living wage is anything but good for everyone.

    Regarding paramedics, I will cite my brother, who is a paramedic. Because his Ambulance is owned and operated by the Hospital in Fort Bragg, CA, he gets a good salary (he’s part of a union), and he’s been able to stay at the job for many years now and the community benefits from his experience has an Emergency responder. But most ambulances, including the AMR ambulances we have here in Santa Clara County, are staffed by young and inexperienced paramedics who are looking for work as firefighters. Their pay reflects the expectation that they’re not planning to work an ambulance for long. And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a well-paid, experienced paramedic show up when I need an ambulance.

    As it is now, when there is an emergency, both the ambulance and the fire department show up. The experienced guys are on the Fire rig; the ambulance is staffed by folks who are basically interns.

    I didn’t mean to say that nurses are not paid well–nor are mechanics–I just wanted to ask which jobs we, as a society, are willing to let slip in to poverty level jobs.

    Ben

  9. Ben,

    “Providing for a living wage” is not good for everyone because the only known means by which a society may achieve this ideal are ineffective and inefficient. Minimum wage laws (or any artificial price floors/ceilings for that matter) are never effective in the long run because they are set by humans who cannot possibly take into consideration all of the variables of a free market system.

    I am sorry for the despair that many low-wage earners must feel, but there must be something to push people to maximize the resources they can offer. I think Bill has made some good suggestions about how people in Maria’s situation should be thinking. A person’s wage or salary is based on the rarity/prevalence of his or her resources/skills. That Maria is a dedicated, hard worker is one valuable thing going for her, but there are few skills less rare than janitorial services.

    The fact that one’s employer is HP should have little effect. A secretary at a big law firm makes a bit, but not significantly more than if he/she were to work at a small start-up, because a law firm likely creates a more stressful job and there are fewer people able to fill his/her shoes. Cleaning at HP however, is not very different from cleaning at a small start-up.

    The point your mother makes about certain jobs providing wages sufficient for supporting a family is interesting. It is definitely something to think about, but it has the flaw that there certainly exist jobs that society no longer needs. We would not expect an assembly line worker who in the ’40s put the label on Heinz ketchup bottles to make the same as he or she does now because times have changed and robotics are now more effective at this task. Sure, this is an extreme case, and I am sure you would like to say we do “need” janitors — but do we need _more_? — and it illustrates that humans cannot adequately estimate the worth of a job with artificial price floors.

    The low wage of janitors reflects a surplus in that resource and pushes those who might choose that job to look for a better paying position for which they may have the skills. This is the better situation for everyone, where those who can take the best position they can.

    Keith

  10. Keith,

    Thanks for the post.

    As I think about what both you and Bill have said about Maria going out and getting a new job, it seems that that is pretty much what happened when they went on strike. They refused to work at eleven dollars an hour, thereby creating pressure in the labor market that caused the hourly pay to go up a little bit.

    But I don’t share your pessimism about the ineffectiveness of minimum wage laws. I think its safe to say that the establishment of the minimum wage in 1938 under the Fair Labor Standards Act, helped bring the United States out of the Great Depression and it was an important part of establishing the strong American middle class.

    Other labor laws, such as those establishing a forty hour week, and abolishing child labor have had similarly positive effects.

    But even setting aside any kind of government intervention on behalf of low wage earners, do you not think that paying workers a living wage is a moral imperative? Is it OK for a company as wealthy as HP to pay an adult who works full time at the company less than a living wage? What if they made 27 Billion Dollars instead of 28 Billion last quarter and then paid their janitors a living wage? Would that not be a good, and just outcome for everyone?

    Ben

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