Janitors threaten open-ended strike as Minnesota prepares for coronavirus outbreak

iris altamirano
SEIU Local 26 President Iris Altamirano speaks at a press conference in Minneapolis on March 5, 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Minneapolis city leaders are calling for a deal to be reach with 4,000 commercial janitors who clean buildings across the 7-county metro area, including the airport and most buildings in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The commercial janitors, represented by Service Employees International Union Local 26, say they will go on an open-ended strike beginning Monday if they aren’t able to reach an agreement with more than a dozen cleaning contractors represented by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Contract Cleaners Association.

“I am proud to stand with my brothers and sisters in SEIU 26, the janitors, who are mostly women and people of color as they stand up for fair wages,” Minneapolis Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins said at a Thursday news conference. Jenkins noted her membership in SEIU Local 284 as an adjunct professor.

The strike comes as Minnesota health officials plan for a potential outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Any public health response could be hamstrung if the workers who clean airplane cabins and thousands of offices don’t show up for work.

“They’re at the front lines of preventing this virus from spreading,” said SEIU Local 26 President Iris Altamirano. “They clean, they disinfect, they know how to keep us safe. At the same time, we all have a very deep responsibility to also keep them safe.”

The two sides have been negotiating for months and remain divided on three main areas: a environmentally sustainable cleaning program, higher wages and six sick days for all workers across the Twin Cities metro. Workers with six years seniority already get six sick days along with workers in St. Paul and Minneapolis under new sick time ordinances in both cities.

Altamirano says the union has a million dollars in the bank to support workers in the event of a prolonged strike. Janitors held a one-day strike last Thursday, which Altimriano says helped bring the employers closer on paid sick time.

“Striking for our workers was a very scary thing,” Altamirano said. “Their courage cannot be understated (and) they are prepared to do it again.”

The Teamsters Local 120 also pledged support for SEIU Local 26 and say their truck drivers and airport workers will honor a picket line, potentially disrupting food deliveries and air travel — the Teamsters represent people who fuel airplanes, work in the parking ramps and drive delivery trucks, among others.

Altamirano says the two sides will resume negotiations this afternoon.

Also in attendance at Thursday’s news conference were Minneapolis Council Members Steve Fletcher, Cam Gordon, Kevin Reich, Jeremy Schroeder, Andrew Johnson and Linea Palmisano.