“Cincinnatians aren’t poor because they’re not working. They’re poor because their jobs don’t pay a living wage.”
      —“The State of Our Downtown

The Queen City of Cincinnati is home to the corporate headquarters of thirteen Fortune 1000 companies. In 2011, these companies earned combined profits of nearly $17 billion, and their CEOs took home more than $103 million in pay. Macy’s, for example, netted over $1.25 billion; Fifth Third Bancorp took in $1.3 billion; and Kroger enjoyed profits of over $600 million. The New York Times recently described the town as “emerging again as a hub of civic and economic vitality.”

But for too many working people that economic vitality isn’t translating into good jobs with living wages. The city is one of the poorest in the nation, with a poverty rate of 30.6 percent, according to 2010 US Census data. A 2011 study by the National Center for Children in Poverty found that 48 percent of children live below the poverty line—the third-worst child poverty rate in the country. According to SEIU Local 1, even though unemployment is on the decline in the city, poverty and racial segregation are on the rise.

That’s why the current negotiations for a new contract between Cincinnati janitors and cleaning contractors are worth paying attention to. The talks began back in September, but have received little media coverage due to the 2012 election. About 1,000 janitors and their families are directly affected by this contract, and low-wage workers throughout the city who are looking for better pay and benefits are affected indirectly.

The average full-time janitor currently makes just $17,836 annually cleaning the offices of these multibillion-dollar companies. Not only is that below the poverty line of $18,106 for a family of three, it’s also just over half the estimated annual cost of living in the city—$33,347 for a one-parent, one-child family to pay for basic necessities.

As a result of these poverty wages, many full-time janitors qualify for programs such as food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, and housing assistance, so the public ends up picking up the tab for corporations that aren’t willing to pay a living wage. (That’s in addition to corporate subsidies like the $52 million in tax incentives Cincinnati offered Convergys Corp—which earned nearly $335 million in profits last year—for renovating its headquarters.)

“These programs exist for people who are going through hard times,” said Dina Smith, a janitor in the city for five years, who lives with her 17-year-old son in a housing project. “You’re supposed to use them as a safety net and then get off them. But how is anyone supposed to get off these programs when we’re not paid enough to survive without them?”

The Cincinnati janitors’ work is grueling. According to SEIU, they clean more than 37.6 million square feet of office space every night. In addition to vacuuming, emptying trash, and sanitizing bathrooms and workspaces, the janitors maneuver heavy bags and equipment and use highly toxic cleaning chemicals—all at a high rate of speed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that janitorial work is one of America’s more dangerous occupations, in terms of the rate of nonfatal injuries and illnesses requiring days away from work, and also the number of cases of musculoskeletal disorders associated with the work.

And yet, here is what most of the cleaning contractors are offering the janitors: a wage freeze for two years and a ten-cent increase in 2015.

“Making matters worse, they propose to remove full-time hours protections from the contract so they can push workers into part-time jobs,” SEIU spokesperson Izabela Miltko told me. “That way they avoid the requirements of the Affordable Care Act and push the cost of workers’ healthcare onto the taxpayer.”

However, the cleaning contractors ultimately will do whatever the powerful corporations that employ them want them to do. Case in point, Procter & Gamble did the right thing—stepping up and saying that the janitors who clean their downtown headquarters should be paid a living wage. The company uses Compass as its cleaning contractor, and Compass offered the janitors a $.30 increase in the first year, $.25 in the second year, and $.30 in the third year. The current $9.80 hourly wage would therefore rise to $10.65 in 2015, and the average salary would be $19,863. (Not enough, to be sure, but a step in the right direction.) Compass also guaranteed full-time hours and healthcare.

Later this week, I’ll be talking to janitors and reporting on any developments in their negotiations. In the meantime, you can e-mail building owners in Cincinnati—companies like Macy’s and Fifth Third Bancorp—and ask them to support good jobs for janitors.


by Rev. Michael Livingston and Mr. Blake Valenta of Interfaith Worker Justice

“As long as we regard each other not as humans but as the ‘other,’ we will suffer profound abuses in the workplace. Employers will steal their workers'; wages, either overtly or covertly. And all the while they will deny both to themselves and others that this is the case.” —Ven. Sevan Ross, Director Chicago Zen Center

This November 23, at precisely 12:01 am, millions of Americans will surge into their local Walmart. They will go eagerly searching for the rock-bottom prices Walmart stakes its reputation on. But this focus on low prices comes at a cost—a cost felt in the daily lives of the workers directly and indirectly employed by Walmart. In response, Walmart workers in recent months courageously went on strike over wages and safety concerns. This Black Friday, Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) asks people of faith to stand in support of the workers of Walmart, by organizing or joining prayer vigils, flash mobs or letter campaigns at their local Walmart store. Doing so will be an act of faith in concert with the sacred texts of many religious traditions. For some of you, this may be your first public demonstration against Walmart. We would like to comment on the working conditions of Walmart workers, the effects of these conditions, what the workers are doing to change these circumstances, and what you can do to support them.

The Workers

The largest private employer in the United States, Walmart employs 1.4 million Americans. It is uniquely positioned to be on the vanguard of fair wages and just labor practices, yet the risks involved in taking full advantage of this opportunity have proven an effective deterrent to change. You have heard Walmart’s claim that the average employee wage is $11.70. However, the independent marketing company IBISWorld puts the starting wage at $8.81, a figure corroborated by actual Walmart employees. As you can see in this video, when confronted, Walmart is less than forthcoming.

To make matters worse Walmart keeps a tight restriction on hours, forcing many employees into part-time status. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for its employees to find other work to supplement their income. It also deprives those who work fewer than 24 hours a week of health benefits. So it comes as no surprise that a report found that, in California, Walmart employees utilize 40 percent more taxpayer funded healthcare than other large retail employees. Walmart saved millions, you the taxpayer  made up the difference.

Of those lucky enough to get fulltime work, Walmart has a track record of denying overtime by illegally “shaving hours” off employee’s timesheets. In fact in 2008, the company was busted on wage and hour violations totaling more than $500 million—the largest wage violation settlement in history. Will workers be fully compensated for those extra hours put into Black Friday’s midnight opening?

The combination of low pay and poor benefits creates a perfect storm of financial chaos for underpaid workers. The families of Walmart employees use an estimated 38 percent more in public assistance programs (food stamps, subsidized school lunches, subsidized housing, earned income tax credit) than the average families of other large retail employers. But Walmart’s abuse extends beyond the workers in the store.

The rows and rows of merchandise in Walmart’s massive stores get from loading dock to warehouse to store shelf by a complex chain of economic relationships that insulate the company from responsibility for the toll exacted upon the workers who handle these goods. Maintaining Walmart’s enormous logistics system involves poorly paid, extremely dangerous warehouse work. There is a veritable army of warehouse workers engaged in delivering the items shoppers will see on Walmart shelves this Black Friday. Walmart is notorious for its role in outsourcing manufacturing jobs to China, but with warehouse workers Walmart engages in what some have called “domestic outsourcing.” Walmart outsources these jobs to other companies in order to export the blame while demanding even more ruthless cost cutting measures at the expense of the workers. In Walmart’s many logistic hubs around the United States, workers experience unpaid wages, health and safety violations, and other labor violations. Whenever a scandal breaks, Walmart just fires the “one bad apple” company and continues business as usual.

The Cause

But why does the third-largest employer on the planet (behind only the Department of Defense and the People’s Liberation Army of China) “need” to do this? Walmart is already the largest supplier of groceries in America, capturing one of every four US dollars spent on groceries; its CEO makes, in one hour, what the average employee makes in a year; and each week nearly one-third of the US population walks its aisles. Walmart supporters claim that low pay is the only way to keep prices low for the consumer and the only way for Walmart to stay competitive and profitable. This does not withstand scrutiny.

Walmart claims to save households an average of $2,300 per year (a more accurate analysis puts it at $920), yet a report out of UC Berkley shows that raising the minimum wage of their hourly employees to $12 an hour would raise the yearly shopping bill of consumers by only about $12 ($.42 a trip). Wouldn’t you be willing this Black Friday to pay an extra $.42 so those who stock the shelves and check out your purchases can make a decent wage? Regarding competitiveness, the Economic Policy Institute has shown Walmart could raise wages for non-managers by 17 percent and still remain competitive with Costco, their major big-box competitor.

Only one answer truly explains this consistent disregard for the worker and community. Walmart holds to a ruthless cost-cutting motto, where saving a buck trumps all other social and civic responsibilities. What does your faith say to you about this?

The Fight

Despite the risks and challenges, workers are fighting back. Groups such as Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OURWalmart)—a group of Walmart workers who have come together to fight for fairer pay, benefits and scheduling. These are the brave men and women you read about recently who went on strike in Illinois and California—these strikes quickly spread to twelve other states. They went on strike without the protection of a union contract and with the knowledge of Walmart’s history of retaliatory action against workers who stand up for their rights (watch this video to hear one such story).

Much like OURWalmart, Warehouse Workers United and Warehouse Workers for Justice are groups that educate warehouse workers of their rights, bring together workers to defend these rights on the job, and advocate for changes to improve the lives of warehouse workers. They helped workers at Walmart warehouses in Elwood, Illinois, and the Inland Empire area of California to successfully strike against illegal retaliation against workers who spoke out about labor violations (and they won!).

Public victories against a Goliath like Walmart inspire all low-wage workers. If Walmart workers can win justice: carwash workers in Chicago can stand up to wage and safety violations; Palermo Pizza workers can demand an end to union busting; and a worker at a fancy New York gastropub can fight against criminally low wages. The ripples of a Walmart victory do not subside at the edge of the Walmart parking lot; they radiate outward to all oppressed workers.

How You Can Help

OURWalmart issued a warning to Walmart that their intimidation tactics, poor pay, and worker mistreatment must change or they “will make sure that Black Friday is memorable for them.” IWJ is calling on clergy and people of faith to make a stand: to publicly demonstrate their desire for Walmart to do what is best for the company, its workers, and the surrounding community via prayer vigils, flash mobs, or letter campaigns at their local store. It is not known which Walmarts will be affected by the threatened walk-offs, but the issues outlined above affect all Walmart workers.

You are not being asked to attack Walmart (leave the pitchfork and torches at home!). We are simply inviting you to ask an extremely profitable company to ensure that their workers are paid a living wage and the decent benefits that they deserve. It is not a boycott. You are not being asked to block shoppers or shout at management. Instead, through your prayers and other non-violent actions, you are educating Walmart and Black Friday shoppers of the human cost of these low prices. You are telling them that for a mere $.42 more they could purchase that heavily discounted TV from a well-paid employee instead of a poverty wage part-time “associate.” You are asking Walmart to expand its vision beyond its myopic focus on cost cutting, out to the wider community where its employees and shoppers live. In addition, your presence will act as a beacon of support to the employees who may be walking off in protest, considering walking off, or are just unhappy with how they are treated.

This Black Friday, IWJ will be at Walmart not for the deals, but for justice. We hope you will adopt a Walmart in your neighborhood, praying and standing for justice. To learn more and get involved visit the IWJ website.

While this article is written with people of faith in mind, IWJ believes all people whether spiritual, agnostic or atheist desire to see justice at Walmart. For non-faith based acts of protest please visit Making Change at Walmart or OURWalmart. Let us stand together.

A Dime A Day Minimum Wage Campaign

According to a recent report released by the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, raising the minimum wage for the benefit of 29 million low-wage workers—including almost 8 million food workers—would only cost the average household at most an additional ten cents per day for food. Sign this petition from the Food Chain Workers Alliance and the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United to increase the minimum wage (currently $7.25/hour and for workers who receive tips $2.13/hour) through the Miller/Harkin Fair Minimum Wage Act.

Thanksgiving Week of Supermarket Action, November 14–21

In Immokalee, Florida—home to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers— and across the country, farmworkers and their allies in the Campaign for Fair Food pause every Thanksgiving to remember the hard work and sacrifices of the men and women whose undervalued labor has put food on tables for generations. This Thanksgiving will truly be one to remember, however, as Fair Food activists from Florida to California will be taking to the streets in a Thanksgiving Week of Action. If you’re interested in organizing or joining a Thanksgiving Week protest in your hometown, contact [email protected].

New Resource: “Below the Line,” Melissa Harris-Perry Show

Melissa Harris-Perry debuted a series—Below the Line­­—on her show on Sunday. This is going to be a terrific and important resource. “In this new series we’ll bring you regular stories about people living below the [poverty] line,” said Harris-Perry. “The policies and decisions that create the poverty in which they live, what they are doing to survive in tough circumstances, and what we can do as a nation to affect poverty.” Check it out here.


Congressional Inequality Champions Win Big,” by Sarah Anderson

One Person’s Welfare is Another Person’s Ticket to the Middle Class,”  by Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Minor Misconduct,” Angela Caputo

Are Low-Income Programs Enlarging the Nation’s Long-Term Fiscal Problem?” by Robert Greenstein and Richard Kogan

The Wide Poverty Gap Between Women and Men,” by Karen Kornbluh

Softer Three Strikes Rule Has Defense Lawyers Preparing Case Reviews,” by Jack Leonard and Maura Dolan

Transgressive Policing: Police Abuse of LGBTQ Communities of Color,” by Make the Road New York

The You're-On-Your-Own Society,” by Katha Pollitt

Escorted to Jail,” by Christie Thompson

Momentum Builds in the Fight Against Stop-And-Frisk,” Christie Thompson.

Corbett Signs Prison Reform Plan Into Law,” Amy Worden.

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $23,021 for a family of four): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.

Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including more than one in three African American and Latino children. Poorest age group in the country.

Poverty rate among families with children headed by single mothers: 40.9 percent.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Youth employment: lowest level in more than 60 years.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Gender gap, 2011: women 34 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Gender gap, 2010: women 29 percent more likely to be poor than men.

People age 50 and over at risk of hunger every day: 9 million.

Percentage of US population in poverty at some time before age 65: over 50 percent.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Impact of public policy, 1964–1973: poverty rate fell by 43 percent.

Research assistance provided by Christie Thompson.

This Week in Poverty posts here on Friday mornings, and again on Sundays at Moyers & Company. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter.