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Cover Story: Cleaning Up

Matt Ryan tries to help others and work himself out of a job

By Kevin Osborne · September 19th, 2007 · Cover Story
  Matt Ryan
Joe Lamb

Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan thinks janitors are cool. Most of us don't think about the people who clean our offices and classrooms.

Often called "America's invisible workforce" because they typically perform their tasks in high-rise corporate office towers and other buildings before occupants arrive for the business day or after they have left, janitors provide an essential service to keep the economy humming along. Unfortunately, that economy hasn't always treated janitors well. Many in the field make low wages, are given sporadic work hours and have no benefits like health insurance.

That's where Ryan's expertise can make a difference.

As an organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Ryan spent more than two years helping people who clean most of the office space in Greater Cincinnati unionize and demand better working conditions.

By the end of "Justice for Janitors" campaign in July, some 1,200 area workers won major concessions from the largest cleaning companies in the region.

The first-ever contract for the janitors will increase the income of the majority of workers by 129 percent over the course of the five-year contract -- nearly doubling the income of workers at the lowest end of the spectrum within the first 18 months alone.

"I couldn't be more happy about the outcome," Ryan says. "We think it's the start of something exciting in Cincinnati."

Ryan, 29, who lives in Clifton, will stay in the Queen City. His efforts now will focus on helping organize security guards and janitors in non-commercial buildings.

Noting there are more Fortune 500 companies per capita in Cincinnati than in New York or Los Angeles and yet the city has the third-highest poverty rate in the nation, Ryan believes there's still more work to be done here.

"There's obviously something very wrong with that picture," he says. "We will do more to confront working poverty in Cincinnati and make the area more equitable for everyone. The janitors have accomplished something very big, but it's just the tip of the iceberg."

A St. Louis native, Ryan has been an SEIU organizer for more than five years. He previously has worked on campaigns in Chicago, Columbus and Pittsburgh but says he feels a kinship with Cincinnati and is glad his work will let him stay.

"This is work I've always felt compelled to do," he says. "I will do it as long as I feel it's needed and I'm able to make a difference."

To unwind from his high-stress job, Ryan likes to make music. He plays the guitar, banjo and bass.

"When I was younger, the stuff I played was much noisier Rock music," Ryan says. "Nowadays it's mostly Folk music."

Professionally, Ryan hopes to eventually force himself into another line of work.

"The goal of any organizer," he says, "is to work yourself out of a job, frankly." ©

Q: What's the coolest thing about you?

Matt Ryan: "I'm not sure I am cool. I just do what I do, and people can judge it whichever way they want."

Q: What's cool about labor unions?

Ryan: "They bring together a lot of different types of people. Labor is exciting because it brings people together with diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds who might not have met any other way and forges deep relationships."

Q: What's cool about Cincinnati?

Ryan: "It has distinct people, neighborhoods and personalities. The bad is the bad and the good is the good, but you always know when you're in Cincinnati. It has a very distinct character."



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