When Labor Day comes to mind, many think of it as the end of summer: marked by back-to-school sales and the last day of open swimming pools. Its tribute to workers as the backbone of the economy and society comes as more of an afterthought.
There is some debate over who started the holiday (Some believe it to be Peter McGuire, General Secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters, while others think that Matthew McGuire, a Machinist was responsible), But we do know it gained government recognition in 1885, and was passed into national law on June 28th, 1894 by President Grover Cleveland. It is a holiday rooted in the grassroots movement of labor unions. So how have cleaners influenced Labor Laws? The most potent and notable movement started 30 years ago: Justice for Janitors. Labor Day 2019 was kicked off by unionized janitors in the nation’s capital negotiating contracts on behalf of the highly immigrant-employed industry. These very same janitors also initiated The “Fight for $15” rally cry in D.C., a movement that has gained momentum nationwide. Without the original Justice for Janitors assembly in 1990, these movements would have a significantly smaller platform.
It began as a peaceful strike for the right to organize in Century City, Los Angeles by immigrant janitors, but ended in a barrage of violence against the protesters: resulting in dozens of hospitalizations and 60 supporters of the movement being unlawfully detained. This act of violence against the vulnerable community only stood to strengthen the movement as they regrouped at a nearby park later that day, receiving press coverage of the violence they faced daily. Over the course of the weeks following the incident, public outrage incited its spread. L.A. Janitors won their union and inspired peaceful protests across the country, starting with the nation’s capital. Janitors in Miami used fasting to communicate their message: in wheelchairs from their famished state, they shouted in Spanish “Union or Death”. In Houston, 5,000 Janitors won their first time union contract in a “right-to-work” state, even though the participators of the non-violent demonstrations had their bail set to $20 million dollars for peaceful civil disobedience. By using multiple pacifist strategies, the janitorial labor force was able to succeed in obtaining fair treatment by targeting the real estate industry elites.
Kansas City Public School janitors have followed suit by voting to unionize in 2016. Union workers have addressed the problem of a decline in cleanliness due to under staffing, a problem solved by the formation of the KCPS janitors union. The custodians are now better able to care for the schools as members of the union SEIU Local 1. “My coworkers and I came together on the job so we could have a voice in keeping KCPS as clean and healthy as possible,” said Velma Chapman, a custodian at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy.
Labor Day is a holiday to celebrate all workers, but in a post Covid-19 world, front line workers deserve and extra special shout-out. According to NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard, “The best way we, in the occupational safety and health community, can honor workers today and throughout the year, is to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for every man and woman—young and old alike.” Let’s remember this on Labor Day, and every other day for that matter.
Other special days for cleaners: National Healthcare Environmental Services Week: September 13th-19th 2020 National Custodian Day: October 2nd, 2020
--Elizabeth Carter, Office Manager at Country Club Janitorial