The following article by Brad Sigal is from Fight Back! News:
Minneapolis, MN – On Jan. 30, hundreds of janitors, mostly Latino and East African immigrants, held a spirited meeting at the Minneapolis Labor Center and voted nearly unanimously to authorize a strike. When the strike vote was taken, the multinational crowd chanted and held up signs reading “Yes! Sí! Haa! Ee! Oui!” (‘Yes!’ in English, Spanish, Somali, Oromo and Amharic). With the strike authorization vote, the workers can now strike if the union’s negotiating committee decides a strike is necessary to win their demands.
The workers are members of the union SEIU Local 26, which represents over 4000 janitors who work for 18 different cleaning contractors, including ABM and Marsden. They clean office buildings in downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul, including offices for major banks, corporations and buildings such as Wells Fargo, US Bank, Target and the IDS Center. Their union contract expired Jan. 8, but according to union negotiating committee members, the employer is still uninterested in resolving negotiations quickly or listening to any of the union’s key proposals.
At the strike vote meeting, union negotiating committee members spoke about the disrespect they get at the negotiating table, and why it was necessary to authorize a strike. A statement that the janitors’ negotiating committee handed out at the meeting said,
We clean some of the biggest corporations in the world: Wells Fargo, which made $3 billion in the last three months of 2009 alone, US Bank, which made $1.8 billion last year, and Target, which made $2 billion last year…How long will we allow these corporations to use the recession as an excuse to make us settle for less and less, while they make more and more? Many janitors have seen their income cut by as much as 25% through wage reductions in the last two years and the cleaning companies are proposing to cut even more.
The union is fighting for ‘good jobs’ and ‘green cleaning.’ By good jobs they mean keeping the janitors’ jobs as full time jobs, as opposed to the employer proposal to return most workers to part time. It also means keeping or improving workload protections that the employer wants to eliminate. The union’s green cleaning proposals include changing overnight shift cleaning jobs to day shift jobs, which would save on energy costs while making workers’ jobs better. Another union green cleaning proposal is to use more environmentally-friendly cleaning chemicals, which would also create a safer work environment for the janitors. The employer has not taken these proposals seriously, even though the green cleaning proposals would actually save them millions of dollars.
The employer has taken a hard line in negotiations because they seem to think they have the upper hand due to the bad economy and a mass immigration audit, or silent raid, that led to ABM firing 1200 Latino janitors late last year. This is similar to the mass immigration firings that happened in Southern California last year at Overhill Farms and American Apparel and that are part of a national wave of attacks on immigrant workers. Among the fired Latino janitors in Minneapolis were many union activists from Local 26. ABM replaced many of the fired Latino workers with African American workers brought in through a temp agency in North Minneapolis, paying them $2.50 an hour less than the rest of the janitors, and keeping them in ‘temporary’ status. The African American workers and the union have stood up against the employer’s discriminatory treatment. 50 of the African American workers marched to demand that ABM pay them equally, including back pay. The workers also filed discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to try to bring the African American workers hired through Emerge Staffing up to the same wage as the rest of their co-workers.
In addition to the strike vote, the union is mobilizing workers and supporters to pressure the employer. Workers are organizing a different protest action every day to increase the pressure. A solidarity committee has formed to bring together other unions and organizations to support the janitors. A civil disobedience training is set for Feb. 6 so union supporters will be ready to take direct action in support of the janitors if necessary.