Denver janitors march for dignity and a living wage

Hundreds of Denver janitors and their supporters took to the streets Wednesday to fight for a path to a $15 per hour wage.

Holding mops, brooms and brightly colored signs, the more than 500 participants marched from Skyline Park through downtown Denver, chanting their demands for change in both English and Spanish.

Though matching purple shirts and a raucous brass band added festivity to the march, the janitors’ message was stern: pay us a wage we can live on.

“The cost of living in Denver has risen sharply,” Magdalena Astudillo, who has worked as a janitor for 17 years, said in Spanish. “We want a better salary so that we can give our families a better life.”

Astudillo, a mother of three, currently only makes $12 per hour. Raising the wage ceiling so that more senior workers can eventually earn up to $15 per hour is important, she says. Such a wage increase will help her pay for her children’s educations. Two are about to start college in the fall.

Wednesday’s march was organized as part of the the Service Employees International Union’s “Justice for Janitors” campaign, which helps janitors nationwide organize to increase their wages and benefits.

The master contract currently under negotiation covers more than 2,400 janitors, who work in 180 buildings operated by 27 different cleaning companies. The current contract was negotiated in 2012.

That was not long after the recession, when Denver real estate was hit hard. Now that the market is booming once again, workers feel they deserve higher pay.

“I do my part by working all night so that the office workers at Denver Financial have a clean, pleasant workplace but even so, I can barely afford even the basics for my family,” employee Angeles Oñate said in a statement. “Working full-time, shouldn’t I be able to afford a roof over my head and food on the table for my kids?”

A team of seven janitors is currently negotiating the terms of a contract, which will go into effect on July 1. They hope to achieve their demand for a path to $15 an hour and have a seamless transition to the new contract.

But if they don’t get what they want, the Denver janitorial workforce is willing to take a stand. At the end of the march, the large group of employees voted overwhelmingly to approve a strike should negotiations fail to meet their demands.

But Astudillo says she’s hopeful that a strike won’t be necessary. Asked if she had hope for the negotiations, she said, “Of course. We are 2,400 janitors in the middle of the city. I think we’ll get what we’re asking for.”

Photo credit: Kelsey Ray