Column: Detroit takes big step forward on workers’ conditions

December 9, 2021 4:05 am

General Motors headquarters and the Spirit of Detroit | Susan J. Demas

When people come to Detroit, they count the impressive GM Renaissance Center on their list of top places to explore. 

From the lawyers, insurance agents, and businesspeople who work there, to couples getting married in the Wintergarden, to the out of town visitors, the Ren Center means something to a lot of people. And keeping it clean, sanitary, and beautiful takes hard work. As one of the janitors responsible for keeping those gleaming towers pristine, I am proud of the work that I have done alongside my coworkers for over 33 years. 

Throughout this pandemic, we’ve risked our lives to keep downtown Detroit running. All across our city, frontline workers have gone above and beyond for our communities, too often without the protection, pay, or respect we deserve. But, essential workers in Detroit and throughout the country have been rising up to demand change, and we are winning.  

Essential workers across industries including janitorial, fast-food, nursing homes and beyond protested, rallied, testified in front of the Detroit City Council and even went on strike to demand a seat at the table. Last month, the Detroit City Council voted unanimously to pass the Industry Standards Board ordinance, giving workers a voice on the job and a stronger say in the conditions of our workplace.

Through an Industry Standards Board, which went into effect last week, workers within a specific industry will be able to sit down with employers and city officials to recommend the standards that should exist and the industry-wide measures needed to create safer, healthier and fairer workplaces.

This is long overdue. 

Workers rally in Detroit, July 24, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Essential workers in our city, especially Black and Brown Detroiters, have long been held back by jobs that don’t pay enough and that deny us a voice in decisions about how we’re treated and the conditions we work in.  And serious workplace issues like sexual harassment, discrimination, lack of proper PPE or training are far too common.

COVID was just the latest in a long series of crises that have left workers vulnerable to innumerable dangers because big companies chose to put their profits over our safety and the safety of our communities. The pandemic helped make it crystal clear how urgently we need changes across the board.

As frontline workers, we are experts in our industry and we know best what needs to change. Now, with the help of this newly passed ordinance, every worker in our city will have access to a table with employers, ensuring our voices are heard and respected.

I joined my union, SEIU Local 1, because I know how important it is for workers to have a collective voice at work. Together, we have more power to protect our rights and hold employers accountable. When every worker has a voice on the job, we can take on the issues that we all face and pave the way to good jobs that lift up our families and communities. 

But while passing this ordinance marks an important first step towards justice, our work doesn’t end here.

Systemic racism and economic inequality have shaped Detroit for decades, and it will take time and people continuing to organize to enact meaningful, long-term change.

So long as workers have a seat at the table, I have hope that we can build a Detroit that works for all. I have hope that together, we can build a future where every person, no matter their race, background or job title, has their rights respected and every family can thrive.

As I sat with my fellow essential workers, watching the City Council members vote yes on the standards board, I felt great pride in our city. With this groundbreaking ordinance, our elected leaders are asserting that Detroit is a leader, not just in arts and culture or downtown revitalization, but in showing the rest of the country what it looks like to value and respect the labor and voices of essential workers.  

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Carla Anderson
Carla Anderson

SEIU Local 1 Executive Board Member Carla Anderson has worked as a janitor in downtown Detroit for over 33 years and is a lifelong union member.