Downtown Milwaukee janitors secured a new union contract that guarantees a $15 minimum wage and lets any janitor in the greater Milwaukee area union-eligible. (Photo courtesy of MASH)
Downtown Milwaukee janitors secured a new union contract that guarantees a $15 minimum wage and lets any janitor in the greater Milwaukee area union-eligible. (Photo courtesy of MASH)

A local union leader hopes the new labor agreement serves as a baseline for all service workers in greater Milwaukee.

Milwaukee janitors are set to join the ranks of workers making $15 per hour or more under a new union contract reached last month by their collective bargaining unit.

The three-year contract, ratified in July by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 members, will set a $15 minimum wage for about 400 janitors who work in downtown Milwaukee and allow all janitors in the metropolitan Milwaukee area to join the union. The janitors work for firms that are contracted to clean offices, government buildings, and more.

To James Rudd, an SEIU Local 1 steward and office cleaner, the new contract shows that janitors and other essential workers are finally getting some of the recognition they deserve for working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and keeping workspaces clean and safe during that time.

“It’s a learning moment,” Rudd said. “A lot of people are starting to see there are certain jobs that are kind of looked down upon that are more important, and there’s certain situations that make those jobs more important.” 

By the end of the three-year contract, Juneteenth will be included as a holiday, and the wage will go even higher than $15, said Rudd, who currently makes more than $15 per hour.

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“It is a blessing. That’s the main thing,” Rudd said of a $15-plus hourly wage. “Like, wow, I’ve finally worked my way to get to an amount that’s over $15.” 

Peter Rickman, president of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH), said he views the contract not only as a step forward for janitors, but for the entire service industry in greater Milwaukee.

“We can win a real living wage for service workers when we build this floor across the market,” Rickman said, calling a $15 hourly wage a “way station for going to where we need to go.”

MASH, the union that represents workers at the Milwaukee Bucks’ Fiserv Forum, has been active in several recent union drives, including the SEIU Local 1 effort, and it is also working with local business Bounce Milwaukee to unionize its employees.

Rickman said he hopes the service industry standard becomes a $40,000 salary with health insurance, retirement plans, and 40 guaranteed hours per week. With Republicans in control of the state government and Democrats in Congress being unable to come to an agreement on a higher minimum wage than the current hourly rate of $7.25, Rickman said unions are more necessary than ever to ensure good treatment for all workers.

“It’s not going to be policy makers that deliver on a $15-an-hour wage floor,” Rickman said. “It’s going to be union contract campaigns.”

Rudd said the new janitorial contract was one of the best SEIU Local 1 has negotiated in some time, but he doesn’t want to stop there. He wants janitors to continue pushing for a higher wage and better working conditions.

“There’s always more that’s needed, just like a job is always expecting more,” Rudd said. “We’re always needing more also, so we can live the thing that everyone wants to live here: the American dream.”