May 14, 2015;Detroit Free Press

The struggle for a living wage has moved to Detroit as the city’s janitors begin negotiations for a new contract to replace their current deal, which will expire on July 31st. At a rally in front of the New Center One building in downtown Detroit, Pamela Moore, an executive board member of SEIU Local 1, which represents the janitors, said, over protest chants, “We are here fighting for better wages and to keep our benefits.”

“We’re fed up!” said Emanuel Taylor, 59, of Detroit. The Metro Airport janitor beat on a bass drum while he marched. “We’re tired of donuts with holes in them. We want some with cream filling.”

The janitors’ effort to increase their wages comes at a time of great national debate about the minimum wage, a “living” wage, and the role of unions in the work place. Detroit’s unionized janitors currently earn about $11.50 an hour, which comes to $24,000 on an annual basis. This is higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25, the state of Michigan’s rate of $8.15, and the $10.10 currently being proposed as the new federal minimum by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. It is also higher than the $9/hr. level that Walmart recently set for their 11,500 employees in Michigan and the $9.90/hr. that workers in corporate-owned McDonald’s restaurants will earn as of July 1st.

With offices in the Detroit metropolitan area, this week’s blog post from Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg announcing that the company would pay a minimum of $15 an hour, with 15 vacation days and a $4,000 bonus for having a child, and require its contractors to meet the same base pay level for their employees, sets a different standard. SEIU West president David Huerta praised Facebook’s announcement, calling “Facebook’s decision…a direct result of security officers and shuttle drivers joining together.”

“I think it’s resonating with people,” union spokeswoman Izabela Miltko said. “It’s about all low-wage workers standing up for their fair share.”

The median household income for the Detroit metro area was $51,857 in 2013; for the City of Detroit proper, it was $26,325. In this context, is $24,000 sufficient and fair? What is a living wage, anyway? —Marty Levine