Joined by Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and other supporters, janitors who clean buildings across the Twin Cities voted Saturday to authorize a strike if employers don’t agree to a new union contract that addresses racial and economic disparities.
The three-year contract for 4,000 janitors represented by Service Employees International Union Local 26 expired Dec. 31. Negotiations, which have been underway since October, have been marred by cleaning contractors’ efforts “to stall and intimidate workers,” the union said.
“I voted to authorize an unfair labor practice strike because I am part time, and make $13.16 per hour, and many of my co-workers make as little as $11 per hour,” said Adriana Espinosa, a Local 26 member and janitor employed by ABM to clean the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
“We work incredibly hard, and a $15 minimum wage would mean more stability for my family and would allow us to live, not just survive.”
In 1982, janitors employed directly by building owners in the Twin Cities earned $6.20 an hour – which would be $15.42 in today’s dollars, said Local 26 President Javier Morillo-Alicea. In recent years, building owners have subcontracted the work to cleaning companies, which in turn often use other subcontractors, driving down wages and working conditions.
What were once good-paying, full-time jobs, held mostly by whites, have become more difficult, lower-paying jobs done primarily by people of color, many of them immigrants.
The diversity was evident as the union conducted the strike vote at its Northeast Minneapolis headquarters in multiple languages, including Spanish, Soomaali and Amharic.
Workload is a major issue. Many janitors are cleaning the equivalent of more than 20 homes per night, every single day.
“We work hard, and do good work, but we are fighting so that we can have reasonable workloads that allow us to live, not just survive,” said Elia Starkweather, who cleans the Ameriprise tower in Minneapolis. “If our employers won’t have a real conversation about fixing this, we will have to strike.”
Joining the crowd of more than 500 janitors and supporters was Lt. Gov. Smith, who said, “The Governor [Mark Dayton] and I support your fight because we know that sometimes you have to fight in order to be treated fairly.”
Smith said gains won by janitors “will not only help you and your families, [but] will help everyone in this community to get ahead.”
The union has set a Valentine’s Day deadline for progress on its contract goals. The next bargaining session on the janitors’ contract is Jan. 29. Local 26 also is negotiating a new contract for nearly 2,000 security officers, with the next session set for Feb. 3.