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4200 Janitors Vote to Authorize Strike in Minneapolis-St Paul

by Brad Sigal |
January 17, 2007
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Voting-sign in 3 languages: "Yes - Si - Haa" at mass srike vote.
Janitors in SEIU Local 26 vote 'yes' on January 13 to authorize a strike. (Fight Back! News/Brad Sigal)

Minneapolis, MN - On Jan. 13, hundreds of janitors, the majority Latino and Somali immigrants, held a spirited meeting at the Minneapolis Labor Center and voted nearly unanimously to authorize a strike. The multinational crowd chanted, “Yes we can do it!” in Spanish (“Sí se puede!”) and in Somali (“Haa wakarna!”). When the vote was taken to authorize a strike, members held up signs reading “Yes! Sí! Haa!” (‘yes’ in English, Spanish and Somali).

The workers are members of SEIU Local 26, a union that represents 4200 janitors who work for 18 different cleaning contractors, including Marsden, ABM and MSI. They clean office buildings in downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul, including offices for major corporations and buildings such as Target, Wells Fargo, IDS Center, US Bank and Lawson Commons. The janitors’ pay is low and their health care coverage is so expensive that few of the janitors can afford it. Of 2200 workers who are eligible for family health care coverage, only 14 workers actually take the family coverage plan.

The employer is only offering workers a 20-cent pay increase and is refusing to improve the workers’ health care coverage. According to the union, when wages are adjusted for inflation, full-time janitors earned less in 2006 than they did in 1976. Part-time janitors’ wages have declined by 22% during that time. The employer is trying to move toward more part-time workers, who receive fewer benefits. The union opposes this.

The workers’ contract expired on Dec. 31. Negotiations broke off in late December when the employer presented their ‘final offer’ to the union’s negotiating committee.

With the strike authorization vote, the workers can now strike if the union’s 10-member negotiating committee - which includes three Somalis, one Ethiopian and five Latinos - decides it’s necessary. The union has appealed numerous unfair labor practices for intimidation of workers. If the union does strike, it would be a strike against the unfair labor practices, which means that the striking workers could not be permanently replaced.

SEIU Local 26 members have never authorized a strike before. This strike vote follows on the momentum of recent janitors’ strikes and victories in other states. After the strike vote, the negotiating committee will return to the negotiating table to try to get a better contract. The union is also planning other pressure tactics to try to force the employers to budge.

If that doesn’t work they are preparing for a strike. After the Jan. 13 strike authorization meeting, a group of about 40 people met to form a solidarity committee to mobilize union and community support for the janitors in case of a strike. AFSCME Local 3800 president Phyllis Walker presented SEIU Local 26 with their first check from another union for their strike fund, and pledged to raise more support from the labor movement when a strike begins. The solidarity committee is planning various support activities.

If the janitors in SEIU Local 26 do strike, it would be a significant battle for the labor movement in the Twin Cities. Since 2000 there have been a series of big strikes here involving thousands of workers, some of which have been very sharp battles. Hotel workers struck in 2000, state workers and nurses struck in 2001, hospital workers and university clerical workers struck in 2003, metro bus drivers struck in 2004 and Northwest mechanics struck in 2005-2006.

The janitors in SEIU 26 are among the lowest paid workers in the Twin Cities working class. They are by and large oppressed nationalities and recent immigrants - ‘invisible’ workers who live on the edge of survival with everything to lose. Their willingness to fight is an inspiration to the working class as a whole.