Frank Vincentz [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

December 13, 2019; Hyperallergic

After a banana duct-taped to a wall at the annual Art Basel Miami Beach art show found multiple buyers for $120,000 each, protesting janitors liberated the image for use in a labor action to call attention to “the absurdity of someone spending tens of thousands on a banana taped to a wall in a city where janitors earn so little that they can’t afford to feed their families.” The protestors wore their own bananas duct-taped to their chests and used the hashtags #YaBasta and #CatallanBanana and #JusticeforJanitors to advertise the action on social media. So does art become a tool of social change, even when it needs a little appropriation.

Quoting from a new report coproduced with the UCLA Center of Neighborhood Knowledge, the labor union 32BJ SEIU demonstrates that the “janitors who clean South Florida’s most valuable office buildings and maintain property values for investors are some of the most exploited workers in the real estate industry.” In Miami, the 12th-largest commercial real estate market in the US, the contract janitors make a median wage of $8.50 per hour, the lowest among major US cities. The low wages mean “57 percent of office janitors…live below or near poverty, 69 percent are rent burdened, 33 percent rely on government programs like SNAP.”

Most luxury office towers outsource janitorial services to “low-bid contractors, who often cut corners and reduce wages and benefits in order to win business.” Manuel Moreno, a janitor who works for the cleaning contractor Coastal Building Maintenance, says:

My knees are worn out because I’m standing all day and night. I work two jobs during the week and clean houses on the weekend because my salary isn’t enough.

I don’t have sick days or any other benefits. Two months ago, my knees swelled up, which makes it difficult for me to walk, but I don’t have the option of taking a few days off. I would like to work for a responsible company that values the work that we do, that understand that we’re human beings and not machines.

Organized worker actions like the Justice for Janitors campaign that started in Los Angeles in the 1980s have made a difference for a number of workers, but have not achieved appreciable scale. We might compare this protest in Miami to the Detroit janitor’s protest that NPQ chronicled in 2015, which called attention to the continued plight of workers for whom a baseline of health and well-being is out of reach.

Realistically, even in the best-case scenario, what scale of wage and working condition improvements might we expect from these targeted labor actions? In today’s US, a staggering 53 million people, or 44 percent of all workers, are earning low wages, defined a as median hourly wage of $10.22 and a median annual income of about $18,000. That’s according to a recent Brookings Institution study, which concluded that poorly-paid or non-living wage work is “pervasive” and “there aren’t enough good jobs to go around.”

NPQ’s Steve Dubb wrote in June this year, regarding federal data underscoring dramatically growing wealth inequality in the US, that “the point, however, is not simply to be troubled by these numbers but to change them.” In another piece highlighting the growth of worker-owned enterprises and co-ops, Steve Dubb quotes Nathan Schneider, a media studies professor at the University of Colorado, as he considered how the civil sector might respond:

Schneider emphasizes the importance of imagination. “We were in a moment of such a lack of imagination ten years ago and in the years following,” he explains. For him, the impact of social movements like Occupy has been to reclaim and recognize that “we haven’t even asked ourselves what we really want.”

Schneider adds, however, that we cannot just wait for the economy to falter, but instead need to build the infrastructure now. “All of these things need to be,” Schneider explains, “not only part of our imagination, but part of our process of building power behind it.”

Sorely needed policy change to address widespread wage stagnation hasn’t occurred under either the Obama or Trump administrations. What might be a response from the nonprofit and civil sector to imagine an alternative vision of prosperity—not just less inequality—and begin to build power behind it?—Kori Kanayama