4,000 janitors to strike, affecting nearly all Twin Cities office buildings

    george mullins janitor seiu 26
    George Mullins, a janitor in Minneapolis, speaks at an SEIU Local 26 news conference announcing a one-day strike. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

    Commercial janitors working in nearly every office building in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul plan to strike for one day next week as they push for higher wages, more sick days and a program to reduce their environmental impact.

    Representatives of Service Employees International Union Local 26, which represents 4,000 commercial janitors, say negotiations have stalled with more than a dozen maintenance contractors.

    “The only reason that we are striking is because the conversations have come to an end and are stalled,” said Iris Altamirano, president of SEIU Local 26. She said they hope the strike will put pressure on the companies to return to the bargaining table. They’ll announce which day they’ll strike next week.

    Workers with the union, which represents mostly women and people of color, say their wages have not kept up with inflation.

    “They keep saying how good the economy is, but we on the janitorial side don’t see it,” said George Mullins, janitor at Target’s headquarters downtown. “Every year we keep falling farther and farther behind. Rent go up. Gas go up. Everything go up but our wages.”

    John Nesse, an attorney for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Contract Cleaners Association, said the employers are disappointed that negotiations have stopped but have contingency plans in place for the strike.

    “We’re looking forward to getting back to the bargaining process. We expect to agree upon an increase in wages that reflects the current market,” Nesse said.

    Most SEIU 26 commercial janitors earn $16.62 an hour, the wage negotiated in their last three-year contract. It’s higher than the city’s minimum wage, but not enough to meet the basic cost of living in the Twin Cities for most households, according to government data.

    The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development estimates that for the typical three-person family, both parents need to earn at least $17.42 an hour to get by. (A single parent with one child would need to earn nearly $30 an hour.)

    Workers with SEIU 26 want annual raises of $1.50 per hour for the next four years, bringing workers to $22.62 an hour by 2024. The employers proposed a $1.50 an hour increase over the course of the four-year contract, according to a spokesperson with SEIU 26.

    Elia Starkweather janitor SEIU 26
    Elia Starkweather, a janitor and Vice President at SEIU Local 26, speaks at an news conference in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

    “We are sometimes not able to get healthy foods or healthy stuff for our families because we have to choose between paying rent or eating healthy,” said Elia Starkweather, a janitor at Ameriprise’s offices and vice president at SEIU Local 26

    Another sticking point is additional sick days. Currently, workers with six years of seniority get six sick days per year while newer workers get four sick days (People who work more than 30 hours a week in Minneapolis and St. Paul are already entitled to at least six days of paid sick leave under city ordinances). SEIU 26 is proposing all employees get six sick days per year, although some workers say that’s still not enough.

    “When I’m sick, (I have to) go to work,” Starkweather said.

    The commercial janitors are also pushing for a unique “green cleaning technician” program, which they’ve failed to get in previous contracts.

    They’re proposing their employers contribute two cents per worker per hour to a fund for training janitors to do their jobs more sustainably. Once trained, workers would earn a 20-cent per hour raise under SEIU 26’s proposal. The program would aim to reduce water use, transition custodians to more environmentally-friendly cleaning products, increase recycling and composting and reduce electricity consumption.

    Starkweather moved to Minnesota from Mexico about 20 years ago and says climate change is already affecting the region she moved from.

    “My town is in the mountains and we are (farmers),” Starkweather said. “Climate change is really (bad) for us because right now the farm doesn’t get a lot of corn. It doesn’t get a lot of beans. It doesn’t produce like before.”

    SEIU 26 represents more than 8,000 workers altogether, including janitors, security guards and other maintenance workers across the Twin Cities. They’re currently negotiating six contracts for commercial janitors, retail janitors, window washers, airport workers, block-by-block street cleaners and U.S. Bank Stadium workers.

    Some 2,000 SEIU security guards across the Twin Cities reached a tentative agreement on Tuesday, which includes a $2.30 an hour raise over the next four years. Workers will vote on the contract Saturday.

    This story has been updated with comment from the Minneapolis-St. Paul Contract Cleaners Association.

    Max Nesterak
    Max Nesterak is a reporter for the Reformer focusing on labor and housing. Most recently he was associate producer for MPR’s Morning Edition after a stint at National Public Radio. He also co-founded the behavioralscientist.org and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.