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
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.)