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As possible strike looms, wages and workload remain biggest issues for Twin Cities janitors

SEIU executive board member Brahim Kone: Many SEIU janitors are being forced to clean more space in less time, and the union wants to clearly limit how much work can be required in the new contract.

Service Employees International Union Local 26 (SEIU) officials are meeting Friday with Minneapolis-St. Paul Contract Cleaners Association for the first time since roughly 4,000 SEIU janitors voted to authorize a strike if a contract agreement is not reached by Feb. 14.

The union janitors, who clean commercial buildings throughout the Twin Cities, saw their contract with metro employers expire on Dec. 31.

After several bargaining sessions, union officials have challenged the contract cleaners association — which represent local cleaning companies — to meet them on clearly defining the workload limitations for their janitors, and say they’re willing to go on strike if an agreement isn’t reached before their Valentine’s Day deadline.

“So far we’ve had about eight bargaining sessions and not a single proposal has been agreed on,” said SEIU executive board member Brahim Kone. “The biggest proposal we have so far is workload [limitations].”

In fact, though lot of attention has been given to the $15 an hour part of their contract proposal, Kone said, some union members are actually more concerned with lessening the workload they believe is unfairly put on the janitors, most of whom are people of color. 

Many SEIU janitors are being forced to clean more space in less time, Kone said, and the union wants to clearly limit how much work can be required in the new contract. “The language that we have right now says that the employer shall not put an unreasonable workload on the worker,” he said. “But what is unreasonable?”

Adriana Espinosa, who works for Marsden Building Maintenance, said she already works part time for just over $13 an hour. She voted yes on Saturday because $15 an hour would help her pay for things like her mortgage, her car insurance and buying food. “I need a raise,” she said. “I have to work two jobs just to pay for family expenses.”

Kone said that while they voted to allow a strike, the union hasn’t yet finalized any plans for one. But they’ve discussed a 24-hour strike if the contract isn’t agreed upon by their deadline.

John Nesse, with the Minneapolis-St. Paul Contract Cleaners Association, said the association isn’t willing to discuss the specifics of contract negotiations, but that — in addition to the session being held Friday — they have already scheduled several more bargaining sessions.

“We remain hopeful that we will reach an agreement,” Nesse said. “And we’re committed to negotiating an agreement that reflects the market.”

While the union bargaining committee has only discussed a 24-hour strike, SEIU member Sonia Cortez said she’s willing to go on strike for longer if the janitors’ demands aren’t met. “This moment is the reason why everybody came together,” she said. “We’re thousands of people and we’re ready to strike.”

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