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Janitors In St. Louis Protest For Higher Wages


In St. Louis, a protest this week...


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We work, we sweat, put 15 on our checks.

MONTAGNE: The goal, as we hear from that tape from KMOV TV in St. Louis, is higher pay for thousands of janitors in the city. Right now, janitors working for private companies make around $10 an hour.

The Reverend Darryl Gray helped organize the protest as part of a larger campaign called Fight For 15. He joins us now from St. Louis. Thanks very much for joining us.

DARRYL GRAY: Well, thank you very much. This is definitely an honor.

MONTAGNE: Seventeen people, as you know, were arrested this week in this protest. These were janitors and activists as well.

GRAY: It was quite the coalition. We had janitors, activists, and one city alderperson was also elected, clergy. And we felt that it was necessary to let people know that we were prepared to sacrifice ourselves in this way to support the Fight For 15 and the janitors.

MONTAGNE: People are calling this issue - some people - about janitors' pay a racial issue. Why exactly is that?

GRAY: Well, in our particular case, there are 2,100 SEIU Local 1 janitors. And SEIU - that's the Service Employees International Union. Out of that 2,100, over 90% are African American men or women. And so as I stood at the press conference and as I stood in front of the marchers and looked back, I could see, you know, a sea of black faces. The reality of St. Louis in particular - the racial income gap is more than 10%. Black families are three times more likely to live in poverty than whites. And so when we look at the disparity - the income disparity in this region, we know that it affects people of color more than anyone else.

MONTAGNE: And you have, in fact, I know, compared the Fight For 15 campaign to the Memphis sanitation workers' strike back in 1968. That was huge news at the time. And what parallels do you see?

GRAY: You know, Dr. King's last words - you know, moving from civil rights to economic rights and economic justice - those were his last speeches. And I think that when you look at when Dr. King went to Memphis to support the sanitation workers, people were, you know, were like, why are you going there? These are menial jobs. Well, we - Dr. King felt there are no menial jobs; there's just menial pay.

We feel the same way that just because they're janitors, they should still receive a livable wage. I mean, these people are the folks that continue to clean buildings. They do maintenance. We're talking about people who bring comfort and convenience and cleanliness to our lives and to our jobs. They make our jobs a lot more bearable to come to. They deserve to be treated with dignity. They deserve to be treated with respect. And as my grandmother would say, an honest day's work is worth an honest day's pay.

MONTAGNE: Let's zoom out, though, for a moment on this whole subject of, really, civil rights, as we're talking about here. There has been a lot of race-related unrest in the St. Louis area recently. I mean, we remember Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson in 2014. And now, also, this campaign for janitors' pay has that sort of aspect to it. Has there been no progress on racial issues in the aftermath of Ferguson?

GRAY: The reality is this. Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. We have a black police commissioner/police chief. We've got a black public safety commissioner. Black elected officials, for the most part, are in abundance in the region, but it hasn't changed anything for the dynamics of the black community.

And that's unfortunate because St. Louis seems to be our Selma, where you've got a handful of business leaders who really control this region. And they control the politics of this region. And that was reminiscent of Selma, where you had five business families that controlled all the businesses in Selma so everything was linked. And until the business community takes some leadership, until the business community has a social conscience and realizes that it has got to take care of the least of these, then, once again, nothing in this region will change unless the business community takes the leadership in changing it.

MONTAGNE: The Reverend Darryl Gray, one of the organizers of the Fight For 15 campaign in St. Louis, joining us from member station KWMU. Thanks very much.

GRAY: Oh, it has been a definite pleasure. And thank you for showing the interest in this issue. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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