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Part of UUSC's advocacy program at this year's General Assembly was a collaboration with St. Louis Jobs With Justice on their Justice for Janitors Campaign. We hoped to increase our understanding of economic justice issues in the St. Louis area while making a concrete contribution to work being done by local groups.
The idea was simple: We would organize a small group of ministers and other UU leaders to meet with some local janitors and then go with them to visit a local employer to dialogue about the working conditions of janitors. We would also work with Local 1 of the Service Employees International Union to try to get an op-ed on this issue placed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Like many simple ideas to achieve justice, this one turned out not to be so simple.
Jobs With Justice suggested that we direct our attention to Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Enterprise is a large national company headquartered in St. Louis. In addition to being one of the largest customers of the largest nonunion company providing janitorial services in Greater St. Louis, Enterprise is an important corporate presence in the region, and has a good record on social responsibility. The UUA, UUSC and many UU congregations are customers of Enterprise, so we thought we could have a dialogue with Enterprise leadership as respectful customers concerned about justice for St. Louis janitors.
To no one's surprise, Enterprise did not greet our overture with unbridled enthusiasm. After no small amount of dialogue, and our assurance that we would not be accompanied by any media, Enterprise agreed to meet with us at their impressive headquarters in suburban Clayton.
The afternoon began with a meeting at the entrance to the America's Center where GA is being held. Two female cleaners who asked not to have their names used for fear of reprisals spoke a bit about what it is like to work for $6.50 per hour with no benefits. While the cost of living is lower in St. Louis than in cities like Boston or San Francisco, it isn't that much lower. $6.50 per hour is still a poverty wage that doesn't make ends meet.
Our 15-person delegation, led by UUSC President, Charlie Clements, and Rev. Suzanne Meyer of the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis, was then shoe-horned into two vans for the trip to Enterprise. At Enterprise, five senior executives received us very courteously and listened intently to our presentation. After outlining what we saw as the inconsistency between Enterprise's progressive role in the community and the treatment of its lowest-paid contract workers, we asked if they would be willing to ask their janitorial services contractor to sit down and bargain with their janitors over working conditions.
The Enterprise executives first claimed that they had not been prepared for what we had come to tell them, and said that they would take our suggestions under advisement without making any commitments. In further discussion, however, they disputed some of the information we presented, insisting that all of their janitors are paid at or above union scale.
After an hour of sometimes frustrating back-and-forth, we left with the assurance that Enterprise would be open to continuing the dialogue. Since they had been unable to get any sort of meeting with Enterprise before GA, our friends at Jobs With Justice were very happy with the meeting and appreciative or our efforts to organize it. Some members of our delegation felt frustrated that we hadn't achieved more, but UUSC volunteer leader Nancy Nowak summed up most people's view by saying, "That was a great day. I really felt as though I had accomplished something." Because of the enthusiasm of the local people that accompanied us, I agree with Nancy.
In some small way, our presence in St. Louis has advanced the struggle for economic justice in that city. On Monday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch will publish an op-ed article by Charlie Clements and Rev. William Sinkford entitled, "A Missouri Promise." Watch for it!