“They Don’t Understand the Value of Life”

Clarence Jones

Clarence Jones was homeless, despite being employed as a janitor for a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical company. He thought his situation was his fault. Then he got involved in his union.

Clarence Jones at an August protest in Indiana. SEIU Local 1 / Twitter

Interview by
Meagan Day

Clarence Jones is a thirty-seven-year-old janitor living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He started cleaning the offices of Eli Lilly, a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical company, in late summer of this year. By early autumn, he found himself homeless, despite working two jobs. By late autumn, Clarence had become an active rank-and-file union member fighting for justice in both his own workplace and other SEIU-represented workplaces around town.

There were a couple of big moments that caused shifts in Jones’ perspective. One was his first bargaining session, which coincided with his first week of being homeless. Jones says he felt like his situation was his own fault — until he sat across the table from the corporate representatives and saw how hard they resisted a raise for him and his coworkers.

The second moment was when a coworker pounded on the table at another bargaining session and asked, “Are we not worth it?” Jones and his coworkers then stood up and filed out of the room, heads held high. “I felt prideful in that moment. I felt very empowered,” recalls Jones. “For the first time, I felt part of something that I know I should be a part of. I know this is what I’m meant to be doing.”

Jacobin’s Meagan Day talked to Jones about his experience of personal transformation through class struggle.

Meagan Day

Where are you from, and what was it like there?

Clarence Jones

I’m from Anderson, Indiana. At one time it was similar to Detroit, a booming automobile town. And then, like Detroit, when industry left it became a desolate area — a lot of crime, a lot of poverty.

I grew up in a working-class household. My mother was a single parent, working three or four jobs to support us. I never actually saw her because she worked so much. My older sister helped raise me, until she left when I was eleven, and then I was on my own.

I started working when I was thirteen on a paper route. In the summers I would detassel corn for farmers. I worked at a buffet. I wasn’t good at school, but I loved music and spent as much time as I could in the band room, learning new instruments.

After high school, I kept playing music. I worked at Target, a place called Lee’s Chicken, Payless Supermarket, a place called Rax Restaurant that got bought out by Arby’s. My best job was at a medical device manufacturer called Symbios, where I was a warehouse materials manager. But they closed. I tried to study for a year at a community college, but it wasn’t for me. So I went back into the workforce and I ended up working at Taco Bell. I worked there for seven years, transferring from the one in Anderson to one here in Indianapolis.

Meagan Day

Were you ever unionized in any of these jobs up until you started working for Eli Lilly?

Clarence Jones

No. Actually, there was one. Payless Supermarket was a local grocery story, and when it got bought out by Kroger I guess we became part of the union. But I never heard anything about the union when I was there. We knew it was there, but never had anything to do with it.

Meagan Day

So how did you become involved in union activism at Eli Lilly?

Clarence Jones

I was working at a brewery called Cannon Ball and I lost that job, so I put something on the internet asking friends if they knew of anything. My friend Doris Jones told me about working at Eli Lilly. Well, actually, we work for SBM, which is the company that Eli Lilly contracts to hire us to clean their building.

Doris was involved with the union. One of the first things that happened when I got hired was Doris sat me down with Paul, the SEIU union organizer. So after I started, I began to notice some things weren’t right. There was some fishy stuff. I brought it to the union. I started talking to Paul more and more, and he gave me some background and let me know that they were trying to get this new contract with SBM, and that’s when I learned about the bargaining.

I was learning more about the union, and then suddenly my lease expired. I have another job as a delivery carrier for Jimmy John’s, and I work as a musician, and between all these three tasks, it just didn’t dawn on me that it was going to expire. It was the first place I had ever lived on my own before, without roommates.

I tried to find a place quick, but I only found one place I could afford. I found it on some website or app, and I had to go to this used auto sales place. They sell cars there, but I guess they also had rental properties. So this young girl took me to the house, where I noticed the porch, the deck was rotted and sinking in. It was hard to get to the door and very hazardous. She struggled to make the key work in the lock and I realized, this place hasn’t been opened for a long time.

When we got in there was a horrible smell. The floor wasn’t level. There was a foul odor coming from the toilet. I said, this isn’t gonna work for me. It just wasn’t something I could tolerate.

So it just so happened that I was homeless. I slept outside, in between Eli Lilly and Jimmy John’s, which are both in downtown Indianapolis pretty close to each other. There’s a city market space that has a stage, and the stage sits behind all of these sculptures and chairs and things. I slept there. I just slept on my bag, with my bike locked to me, and with weapons on me in case anything happened. I kept a minimal amount of clothes in my locker at Eli Lilly, and I would put them in trash bags to take to the laundromat. When I went to work, the first thing I would do is take a shower.

I did that for a while before I started to be able to stay with some different friends. At first, I felt like this wasn’t really Eli Lilly or SBM’s responsibility. It was my responsibility, my fault. I should be able to take care of myself no matter how much I was being paid.

But amazingly, the first week I was homeless was the first week of bargaining, which I participated in. That’s when I started to see it differently.

I took a shower at Eli Lilly and got ready for bargaining, and I sat across the table from all these executives and the lawyer that’s representing all these different companies. And we were trying to present what we had, and everything was just getting shot down. I just sat there like, this is ridiculous.

It was actually embarrassing. You have these people that work for these companies, and a lot of them are worse off than I am. There’s one man who, if he didn’t get the [medical coverage] that he needs, his lungs would collapse and he would die. He has a whole family to take care of, and they didn’t care. They just did not care.

Meagan Day

What did it feel like to sit across the table from these people telling you they didn’t want to fund a raise that you needed in order to get a roof over your head?

Clarence Jones

I could tell they felt above me. It was their posture. They carried themselves with pride. When they would come in, it was kind of like, I don’t even know what you would call that face where you’re squinting your eyes and you’re kind of looking at the people across from you like, “You’re wasting my time.”

Mostly, because I’m new, I just sat back and observed to see how I fit into the situation. But after that I was still homeless. When we went into the second bargaining, Paul pulled us to the side. We caucused, and he and Doris talked about making a dramatic statement.

So we went back in and showed them our proposal, and they said no. Doris stood up and pounded on the table and said, “Are we not worth it? We’re doing this for you. We’re cleaning and working for you. Are we not enough?” And then she just looked at everybody and said, “Come on, guys,” and we all stood up and walked out.

I felt prideful in that moment. I felt very empowered. You’ll have to excuse me. I’m getting kind of emotional. But I was very prideful about it because for the first time, I felt part of something that I know I should be a part of.

I know this is what I’m meant to be doing. Not this job, this job means nothing. It’s about what I’m doing at this table, for myself and the other people that will come after me. For the guy who has something wrong with his lungs. For the lady who can’t walk, but she still has to work. That’s what this is for.

When we went back in, I told them my story. I told them, “I’m homeless and working for you. I started working for this company to better myself. It’s only me. I don’t have any children. I’m not married. I want to support me, and I can’t do that. At the moment, I can’t even pay a deposit and first month’s rent at the same time. These wages are still too low to do that. I can’t. And there’s many other people that can’t either. I take showers in your facilities. I’m sneaking around where I can’t be seen. I’m coming into work three, four hours early because it’s cold out. How would you feel in that situation?”

And I could see them looking at each other like, “Is this really true?” Yes, yes, it’s true. I can take you where I sleep because where I sleep is right across the street from where we’re bargaining.

Meagan Day

Did telling your story have an impact on the bargaining process? And how did the negotiations resolve?

Clarence Jones

I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I think it was a turning point. They still turned down our proposals, but we were telling our story.

There was another lady who works at another building, Regions Tower, and she was telling her story, too. She has arthritis — she’s the one I was telling you about who can barely walk. They basically told her that she had to stop talking about it because she was making the company look bad, and they don’t want that reputation. So she either needs to stop or she will get fired for doing union work.

So Paul organized something for her real quick. He calls me up and says, “Hey man, so this is the plan for the day. We’re going to go out in front of Regions Tower, and I want you to come. But here’s the kicker. Are you ready to get arrested?”

I’m like, for real? Arrested? Because I’ve been arrested before, and it wasn’t pretty. I don’t like police that much. I’ve had many bad experiences with them. But I said, “Okay I’ll do it,” because it was something that needed to be done. I got my coworker at Jimmy John’s to cover the rest of my shift.

And we did it. We blocked the street off and said, “You’re not gonna treat this woman this way.” While we were sitting down, she’s standing up like, “I’m not backing down. I work in this building and you’re threatening to fire me, but I’m right here.”

That was a turning point for their building. They got the healthcare that they needed at Regions Tower. That was always the plan, we just had to figure out how to do it. And that’s how we did it.

So eventually I found a place to live. That was my birthday present, actually. I still have nothing in this place, and it’s been like a couple months. So I’m feeling empowered because now I have a place, with the lights turned on.

When we went into bargaining again, I left my house. I left my bike at Jimmy John’s and grabbed something to eat, then I walked in with a new outfit on. They didn’t know what was going on, but it felt good to me, to be able to hold that part of myself down. To know that when I leave this building I have somewhere to go.

We did another sit-down protest out in front of Lilly, and there were a couple of bosses from SBM there, and I’m pretty sure a couple of executives from Eli Lilly headquarters. And so I decided to tell my story again. The protesters were all looking at the street, but I grabbed the bullhorn and told them to turn around and look at the executives.

And I started speaking to the executives. I said, “This is real. You see this bike over here? That’s my bike. I bike everywhere, every day. That’s my Cadillac. And I’m busting my butt for you every day. And I have my place now. No thanks to you. No thanks to you.”

The protesters are still facing the street. They’re not even looking at Lilly. I’m telling people to turn around. “Turn around, look at the building. Look at the people that are paying you. They decide to put people out in the street or not. The people that are signing your checks are right here. They need to see you.”

That was the most impactful thing that I’ve done within this fight. To be able to tell people, “Look at the company.” And to tell the company, “Look at these people. Whatever they’re going through, it’s real.”

So the next bargaining that we did, it was the best thing I ever saw. They just walked in, sat down, said that our healthcare premium will be $100 a month, as opposed to $280 or $300 which it is now. We got a seventy-five-cent raise for the first year. It’s kind of big for the first year. And then for the second year we got a forty-cent raise, and so on. I’ll be making $11.60 by the end of this contract. Which is still not enough. But it’s a whole lot better than the $9.75 I’m making right now.

Meagan Day

The CEO of Eli Lilly, David Ricks, is going to be taking home $14.4 million this year.

Clarence Jones

That is something that I did not know. Wow. In one year that, that “$.4 million” split between us in my building would do wonders for us. I hope that this person that I’ve never met can someday understand it’s not him alone. We’re down here.

The lawyer we were fighting against, he basically told us, “You all cost too much money.” But you want to keep us though, right? Are we not valuable to you? Don’t you think we should have proper health care? Don’t you want us to be healthy in your facility?

When someone gets hurt, they go, “Oh man, oh, he’s down, he’s hurt now. Oh well, guess he’s not going to be working for us anymore. He’s out of commission. Let’s just hire another person.” They don’t understand the value of life. That’s what they do. That’s what capitalism is. It’s “we don’t care because we’re still going to make our money with or without you.”

My role is being able to speak about my experience, and bring to light the issues that are oppressing us — not just white people, not just black people, but as human beings. It doesn’t matter what the situation is or how people got there, corporations always say, “They did it to themselves.” But people deserve better.