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Thacker: Strong contracts help workers | Opinion

In a post-COVID world, schools demand heightened attention to cleanliness to ensure students, staff and visitors are safe and healthy. As a janitor at Brenda Scott Academy in Detroit, my work goes beyond the classroom. I ensure our school is safe for everyone who enters: from sporting spectators, to Girl and Boy Scouts, to students who stay for the after-school program. I take pride in what I do. That is why I organize with my fellow janitors in our union to make these jobs the best they can be.

This summer, I and hundreds of my Detroit Public Schools janitors fought hard and won a strong new contract that reflects the value of our work. In this contract, we kept our strong health care and pension plans, won five paid sick days for vaccinated employees who get sick with COVID-19, and strengthened the language around personal protective equipment. Our contract also took steps on racial justice, with an additional paid holiday for Juneteenth, a day to recognize Black freedom and resistance.

On top of that, we won a 36% increase on the starting wage for DPS custodians, raising it from $11.25 to $15.30 an hour. This increase provides an incentive to people to stay in this essential field of work and be able to support our families.

As for me, I have two sons with special needs. One just graduated high school and the other is in his senior year. This wage increase will not only allow me to provide around-the-clock support for my sons, but have extra money for them to do things they enjoy.

Our contract victory is a reminder to every worker that our power to win better jobs and better pay depends on our ability to come together and take action.

More and more, it seems working people are waking up to that fact. According to a new study, 71% of Americans say they approve of labor unions - the highest approval rate since 1965. Meanwhile, EPI reports that almost half of non-unionized workers say they would join a union if they had the chance. While support and enthusiasm for unions is growing, there are still many obstacles for workers being able to exercise their rights.

Currently, a lot of the rules are stacked against working people. Agricultural workers or those classified, or misclassified, as independent contractors do not have a legal right to a union. Others who try to organize — like Starbucks and Amazon workers — face rampant union-busting and company retaliation.

That is why we Local 1 janitors are raising a bold demand for unions for all. From security officers to airport workers, nurses to fast food workers, no matter the color of your skin or where you live, all working people should be able to bargain for better jobs and a better future for their families.

But this depends on elected officials, at every level doing their part to put more power in the hands of working people, not corporations. Elected leaders must help rewrite the rules so that it’s easier for workers to join together in strong unions. This election, I know that I’ll be voting for elected officials who will stand with us in our fight for racial and economic justice.

This summer, janitors were able to win a strong contract that will allow me to give my kids a better future and spend more quality time together. That happened because we fought together as one, in our union. With unions for all, we can build an economy that works for all of us.

Leslie Thacker is a leader with SEIU Local 1. She is a janitor in Detroit Public Schools and a bargaining team member.