Complaining that they are overworked, under-equipped and fed up, dozens of custodians rallied in front of Chicago Public Schools headquarters Wednesday morning.
They work for companies hired by CPS to keep the schools clean, and they urged the district to hold their employers accountable for providing them with what they need to keep schools clean.
In all, about 150 custodians marched at Madison and Dearborn streets in the Loop, shouting: “Together we rise, we need our supplies.”
Many employees said they buy cleaning products out of their own pockets. Maxine Gladney, a custodian at Powell Elementary, estimates she has spent hundreds of dollars over the span of her 16-year career.
“The cleaner I get is 98 percent water and 2 percent solution,” Gladney said. “I can’t clean 15 rooms, a library, six bathrooms and three flights of stairs with water.”
Custodians are “the invisible workers” whose job often is overlooked, said Tom Balanoff, president of Local 1 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents them.
“We need the proper equipment,” Balanoff said. “We need the right mops and brooms and cleaning fluids. We also need proper staffing. We’re calling on CPS to create better accountability, to make sure that the contractors are providing the service that the CPS contracted for.”
Negotiations are underway for about 12,000 SEIU Local 1 custodians, whose current contract expires April 8. SEIU Local 1 is among a group of unions that hold ownership stakes in the Chicago Sun-Times.
While their colleagues continued to march outside, some of the custodians went inside to the Chicago Board of Education meeting, where they made their case.
Judith Jenkins, a custodian at Ashburn Community Elementary School, told the board she and the other custodians try their best to provide healthy conditions for students, but can’t always do it without more help from CPS.
Board President Frank Clark made Jenkins a promise.
“We want to make sure you are able to do the job you want to do,” Clark said. “I can hear in all of your voices the dedication you have towards the job that you do, which ultimately means clean schools for our kids.”
One of CPS’ major custodial contractors is Aramark. Karen Cutler, VP of communications for Aramark, said the company sub-contracts to several local minority-owned businesses. In an email to the Chicago Sun-Times, Cutler said Aramark hadn’t heard about the supply concerns: “We are confident that the 400+ CPS schools managed by Aramark have sufficient cleaning supplies and equipment.” She said Aramark has invested over $15 million in new equipment and will be discussing the concerns with the union at their upcoming meeting.
Another custodial contractor, RJB Properties, couldn’t be reached for comment at the time of publication.