Striking janitors: ‘We do the dirty work, we deserve a better wage’

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Union janitors are setting up picket lines across the Twin Cities today, raising the stakes in their fight to win a $15 minimum wage and address alarming workload issues.

The one-day strike over unfair labor practices will impact nearly 200 office buildings in the area before the day is done, according to Local 26 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 4,000 janitors in contract negotiations.

Although employed by several different cleaning contractors, members of Local 26 work inside the offices of the state’s corporate elite, including Medtronic, U.S. Bank, 3M and United Health Group.

The day’s first picket line popped up at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Janitors marched and chanted slogans in several languages outside the drop-off area at Terminal 1.

Terry Groce, third from left, walks the picket line with other MSP Airport janitors.

Terry Groce, third from left, walks the picket line with other MSP Airport janitors.

Terry Groce, whose duties include waxing floors and separating compostable waste from garbage, said his wages haven’t kept pace with his ever-increasing workload during the two years he’s worked at MSP.

“We do more than people see to make the airport look good,” said Groce, who earns $14.80 per hour. “We do the dirty work. We work with chemicals. We work hard, and we deserve a better wage.”

Groce isn’t the only janitor being asked to do more without getting paid more. Reductions in the Twin Cities’ janitorial workforce over the last decade have created dangerous, backbreaking conditions in the industry, with many janitors cleaning the equivalent of 20 homes in one night on the job, according to a report released last month.

It’s dangerous work, too. Building-cleaning and maintenance occupations had the highest rate of lost time due to work-related injury or illness in Minnesota during 2014.

Janitors are seeking several gains in contract negotiations to remedy the workload crisis, including a greater voice over staffing levels and safety procedures, in addition to wages and health benefits that reflect the work’s dangerous and stressful nature.

Union janitors walk a picket line outside the Securian building in downtown St. Paul.

Union janitors walk a picket line outside the Securian building in downtown St. Paul.

Brahim Kone, who cleans the Minnesota Department of Human Services’ offices in St. Paul, said Local 26’s previous contract included language stipulating that employers would not put “unreasonable” workload demands on janitors.

“But what’s unreasonable?” asked Kone, a Maplewood resident who has worked as a janitor for the last 15 years.

“We need the language to be something solid, something specific. Otherwise the (contractors) will just keep increasing and increasing and increasing. I’ve seen it over and over again.”

Janitors’ previous contract expired at the end of 2015, and talks between to the two sides began in October 2015. According to the union, cleaning contractors have refused to address the workload crisis, instead offering a contract that would leave nearly half of the union’s members earning below $15.

Negotiations are scheduled to resume Monday.

“We’re out here showing the bosses that we’re serious, that we want them to do the right thing,” Kone said.

Non-union janitors in the Twin Cities, members of the worker center CTUL, plan a strike of their own tomorrow.

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