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Why I went on strike, and why I’ll do it again if needed

Courtesy of SEIU Local 26
Juana Arriaga

Working two jobs 50 hours a week just to make ends meet is not something I like to do. I have three children, and I’d do anything for them, including working so many hours, even if that means I can’t spend the time or energy with them that I would like. Despite the amount of hours I work, I don’t have the option for any paid days off or paid sick days. But all of the hours and hard work are worth it if I can provide a better future for my children. Despite my current reality, my wish is that my job cleaning an office building would provide enough pay to allow me to pay my bills and have time to help with homework for my children.

On Feb. 17, I did more than just wish for a better future. I took action. I joined janitors all across the metro on a 24-hour Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike because our employers continue to stall, delay and intimidate the janitors who are contracted to clean the buildings housing some of the wealthiest corporations in the world. We have proposed $15 for all janitors, safer workloads (some of us clean the equivalent of over 20 homes per night) and policies that support healthy families.

And as employers continue to delay, I’m willing to go on strike again if necessary.

I make $12.15 per hour, and other janitors make as little as $11 per hour. At a time when some people are getting richer and richer, too many of us are stuck in place or falling behind. My union, SEIU Local 26, found that raising all of the janitors in our bargaining unit to $15 per hour would lead to tens of millions of dollars each year being spent in our communities. Over 90 percent of the janitors in our union are people of color, so this could be an immediate and powerful step to address our state’s painful racial disparities. 

Letting employers and those people in power divide us has hurt all working people for far too long. Janitors showed last week that we are ready to stick together to improve the lives of thousands of families across the Twin Cities. Our campaign has been based around the call to “Reclaim Your Dreams,” and we hope to inspire others to come together and fight back for what is right.

On our picket lines, we saw janitors from all different backgrounds realizing that at the end of the day we are fighting for the same thing: a better life for ourselves, our families, our communities and our state. Our union is proud of our differences — our bargaining sessions are translated into four languages — but we are united in our call for dignity and fairness. No matter who you are, a hard days work should be rewarded with fair pay and decent benefits. We are fighting to live, not just survive.

It seems simple, but if you are a person of color in Minnesota, economic stability is increasingly out of reach in our state. That is why we are fighting for a fair contract for janitors, but also to start a conversation about how poverty wages in a state filled with wealthy corporations isn’t just bad policy, it is morally wrong. If the janitors who are contracted to clean the offices of some of the richest corporations and executives in the world can’t support our families without a second or third job, something isn’t right. It is time to change. That is why we went on strike, and why we will again if we must.

Hundreds of us joined the bargaining session that started Friday morning at 10 a.m. and went 23 hours into Saturday morning this last weekend, and still the employers wouldn’t offer us a fair deal that will support families like mine, so talks broke off again. Walking off the job is a hard decision, but we showed last week that we have the unity and strength to stand together for what is right. If our employers won’t hear our voices at the bargaining table, we will have to take action again. 

If we do have to strike, we hope to have the continued support of community members and all of the elected officials who have supported us and walked our picket lines. We aren’t just asking for support, we are asking for a partnership in having a real conversation about the dangers that our current racial and economic disparities are causing our state. We have a lot of work to do to ensure that all families in Minnesota can live happy and healthy lives, but after seeing janitors and community members come together last week to fight for change, I am confident that if we stick together we will make it happen. 

Juana Arriaga works for ABM cleaning Prime Theoretic Headquarters in Eagen and is a member of SEIU Local 26

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 03/01/2016 - 09:08 am.

    Who’s getting “richer and richer” in todays economy? Is Ms. Arriaga insinuating that white janitors get paid more or that all janitors are of color and therefore the job pays less? How or why is race being injected into this argument? I know it is the fall back position of many on the left but I can’t see race being a factor in this unless someone can show white janitors making more than folks of color.

    As I have stated before, when playing the strike game, you had better have a skill that is hard to replace or they just replace you.

    • Submitted by Donna Koren on 03/01/2016 - 01:11 pm.

      The wealthy are getting wealthier

      Ms. Arriaga did not insinuate anything in the strawman that you described. She said that some people are getting richer, and many are stuck or falling behind. This is correct; research wealth inequality and how it’s widened in this country in the past several decades. The top percentages of wealthy people own a much larger share of the nation’s wealth than they used to, and much of the middle class is being squeezed into poverty. “Trickle down” didn’t work. She also said that increasing wages for lower-paid workers would go a ways to decrease the wealth disparities in Minnesota between whites and non-whites, which also is correct, to the extent that many people of color hold lower-wage jobs (another disparity). Her commentary didn’t focus on race at all, in contrast to your frantic comment. She is saying that people of all races who are working hard, and often more than full-time, in low-wage jobs, are still struggling to stay above water. And now they are fed up and going on strike. If you don’t want to listen, be prepared to grab a mop.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/01/2016 - 09:14 am.

    We make choices in life

    Some we live to regret. But it’s not society’s place undo it.

  3. Submitted by Clete Erickson on 03/01/2016 - 02:33 pm.

    “My union, SEIU Local 26, found that raising all of the janitors in our bargaining unit to $15 per hour would lead to tens of millions of dollars each year being spent in our communities.”

    Those tens of millions of dollars are not free. Companies will pay more for janitorial services and pass that increase onto the consumer. You would have more money in your paycheck but you will pay more for what you have to buy. Ultimately the consumer will foot the bill for the increased price of labor.

    I am not against paying employees higher wages but a large raise to $15 per hour will not be ‘free’; the money to pay the increased wages has to come from somewhere. Rich folks will not take a hit so that leaves the rest of us picking up the tab via higher prices.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/01/2016 - 04:28 pm.

      By That Logic

      None of us should ever try for higher wages.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/02/2016 - 07:09 am.

        Better Start WIth The CEOs

        Whose increasing rate of compensation has far outstripped that of both inflation, overall gains in productivity, and the greater workforce, for decades now.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/03/2016 - 12:33 pm.

      Wage Increases

      If you want to help out the economy, then increase wages at the lower level as that has the greatest impact for the dollar spent. You can increase wages and compensation packages for CEOs and other executives, but they only buy so many refrigerators, bananas, and shoes. At the other end of the scale though you have more people who are buying more basic necessities, which creates a multiplier effect as that same dollar circulates through others’ hands.

      The CEOs? Their dollars don’t go as far for a couple of reasons:
      -Outside of luxury good, they don’t buy as much stuff from the local mom & pop stores.
      -They work hard to protect their funds from taxation, which benefits them, but doesn’t do much for society.

      The problem we’re facing now is that wealth is being concentrated in the hands of a few, leaving less for everyone who doesn’t happen to be part of that group. At what point do you say enough is enough? When the 1% controls 75% of the wealth in the country? 80%? 99.999%? There reaches a point where they have virtually all the marbles and the rest of the people are left in abject poverty. That’s when revolutions are started.

      And, rather than wait for the revolution, some people would prefer to maintain our way of life and make a few small changes now that will help restore some balance. The theory being that you can make the little changes now or the big changes later. And given that the big changes tend to be a lot more painful, it’s more sensible to make the little ones now.

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