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Why I fight for worker rights: Centaur janitors deserve more

Published February 22, 2018 in the St. Louis American
By Jamala Rogers


There is a lot of hoodwinking and shell-moving tactics going on by the Trump administration as it tries to paint a rosy economic picture for the country. The president has touted low employments rates, including for African Americans. Then there’s the “biggest tax cut” ever that made big corporations richer and so benevolent that they could dole out bonuses to their grateful employees.

The problem with employment statistics for black folks is that they never truly reflect our current reality – that we have income-generating jobs not counted by the Department of Labor, that some of us have long stopped looking for jobs, that some of us have been sucked into the prison-industrial complex, that some of us have multiple undesirable, low-wage jobs, etc.

I must always keep in mind black, low-wage workers when anyone starts with alternative facts about how good things are. That’s why I actively fight for worker rights – livable wages, safe working environments, the right to unionize.

Part of that continuum for workers’ rights is the struggle that is unfolding by the janitors employed by Centaur Building Services. Theirs is a fight for higher wages, real benefits, and dignity. The mainly black work force cleans the offices of several local big corporations who use a page out of the Walmart playbook. Pay the workers low enough wages and they qualify for subsidies like food stamps, child care and housing. It’s shameful.

The workers are asking those corporations who contract with Centaur to support their demands. One of those companies is Express Scripts, a Fortune 500 company with annual revenues that exceeded $100 billion in 2016. ES is the largest pharmacy benefits management company in the whole country, so it has the economic and political clout to bring legitimate pressure to a negotiations process. But will it?

Centaur workers who do the cleanup at Express Scripts corporate headquarters in St. Louis County make as little as $8 an hour. A big bone of contention is the lack of access to affordable health care, which is so ironic. While ES racks in mega-profits, office cleaners work hard, then face stressful struggles to make basic ends meet. This lifestyle can’t help but open them up to unhealthy situations that eventually require medical care.

The Service Employees International Union Local 1 surveyed Centaur employees last November and found that 70 percent of them either had no health coverage benefits or they relied on Medicaid or Medicare programs. The Centaur health plan is totally inadequate and surely doesn’t reflect the kind of health care package enjoyed by Express Script employees.

When ES broke ground to expand its facility in North St. Louis County back in 2010, it received a sweet multi-million-dollar incentives package from the state and county. Charlie Dooley, then St. Louis County executive, bragged that the announcement was a “Christmas present” for the region, but some argued that Express Scripts was the main beneficiary of goodies.

At that time, the company extolled its commitment to the region. That commitment should look like making sure residents have jobs with livable wages and basic human rights, such as decent housing, quality education and affordable health care. If that commitment is still there, Centaur and Express Scripts should work together to ensure they are impacting the families they touch in the most positive way possible.

Seminal reports like For the Sake of All and Forward Through Ferguson have challenged the private sector to step up its responsibility in a demonstrative, pro-active way. This means being champions that support – and create, if necessary – the policies and practices that eliminate racial, social, and economic inequities that undermine the well-being of families, especially African American families, and stifle the

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