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Metro area janitors say contract fight is about more than pay

The negotiations between the SEIU and Minneapolis-St. Paul Contract Cleaners Association is seen by some as an opportunity to confront the rollback of collective bargaining. 

A scene from a Nov. 10, 2015, minimum wage rally at Minneapolis City Hall.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Sonia Cortez works 40 hours a week cleaning offices, restaurants and recycling plants for St. Paul-based Marsden Building Maintenance at just below $15 an hour. But it’s still not enough to pay for her monthly bills while helping to put her daughter through college, she said. “You cannot live with this money,” she said. “Believe me.”

Cortez is one of roughly 4,000 contract janitors unionized under Service Employees International Union Local 26 (SEIU) whose three-year contract with metro employers expired on Dec. 31.  Currently SEIU janitors make $14.62 an hour, but union officials said they hope to raise the wages of their members to $15 an hour.

The wage increase wouldn’t just be a symbolic win, said SEIU executive board member James Matias; it would mean an additional $12.5 million for the janitors each year, money that would make a small dent in the income gap for Minnesota’s people of color.

“Most janitors are folks of color,” Matias said. “To bring that [extra income] into communities of color? That is huge.”

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The union also hopes to make some strides on increasing the amount of paid earned sick days their members get, Matias said. Currently, SEIU janitors get three paid sick days a year, and many have families who need the time to be able to stay home to take care of sick children who aren’t able to attend school during the day.

Collective bargaining at issue

For workers’ rights and social justice advocates, the importance of the negotiations goes beyond wages and paid leave, however — it represents an opportunity to confront the continuing rollback of collective bargaining for workers across the state. “Collective bargaining has been shrinking since the ’70s,” said Greta Bergstrom of TakeAction Minnesota. “Today far fewer working class people bargain collectively.”

Bergstrom points to Uber and the taxi industry as an example. While Minnesota’s taxi companies used to be unionized, now they’re losing out to new companies like Uber who independently contract drivers, undercutting the traditional industry by driving down costs.

The same thing is happening in the cleaning industry, said Brian Merle Payne, executive director of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL). The workers’ rights advocacy group works with janitorial staff in the retail cleaning industry, he said, which is staffed almost entirely by nonunionized, independent contractors who make an average of $9 an hour.

It’s becoming common practice for retail cleaning companies to avoid providing janitorial staffs with benefits or wages above the state minimum, Payne said, and those companies often try to encroach on unionized janitors’ turf to get their contracts.

That’s why establishing contracts like the one SEIU is currently negotiating is so important, he said, because it raises the bar for the whole industry. “It could pull up the standards for everybody,” he said.

Bergstrom said Minnesota’s current minimum wage of $9 an hour (for large employers) — which will rise to $9.50 an hour on Aug. 1 — still isn’t enough. “While it’s really important that we’ve secured the $9.50 an hour, everybody knows that’s actually still not keeping up with cost of living,” she said.

John Nesse of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Contract Cleaners Association, who represents the cleaning companies in the SIEU contract negotiations, said the association wasn’t ready to comment on the specifics of the contract’s proposals, but that the janitors’ wages would be part of the final deal.

“We’re absolutely committed to bargaining in good faith for a contract that is in all the involved parties’ best interests,” Nesse said. “And we’re going to negotiate a contract that reflects the reality of the marketplace.”