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Twin Cities janitors declare victory in union fight after 44-month campaign

Twin Cities janitors declare victory in union fight after 44-month campaign

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Photo credit: Union Advocate

From The Guardian:

by Steven Greenhouse

Maricela Flores, a 43-year-old immigrant from Mexico, was so unhappy at her job as a janitor at a Target store just outside Minneapolis – unhappy about having to work seven days a week, about being paid $8 an hour, about not having health coverage or paid sick days – that she did something unusually risky. She went on strike even though she was not part of a labor union.

When Flores, a mother of five, walked out in February 2013, she was one of just eight janitors from stores in the Twin Cities to go on strike that day to demand better conditions. Flores was relieved not to get fired.

Now, 44 months later and after a highly unorthodox organizing drive that included six more one-day strikes, Flores and other janitors who clean Target, Macy’s and Best Buy stores in the Twin Cities are declaring victory. On Thursday, they will announce that 600 janitors have won union recognition and will soon start collective bargaining in the hope of winning higher pay, health coverage and other improvements.

“I could have done nothing, but I chose to fight,” Flores said. “This has been a long fight, but now I feel overjoyed. All the hard work has paid off.”

Flores hopes that her new union, Local 26 of the Service Employees International Union, will bring important gains when it bargains with the retailers’ cleaning contractors. “We want fair work scheduling, health insurance, higher wages,” Flores said in Spanish. “All these things would allow me to be more involved in the daily lives of my children and to have a better quality of life.”

This fight began seven years ago when an immigrant workers’ center in Minneapolis – Centro Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (United Workers Center in Struggle) – contacted janitors at retail stores in the Twin Cities area. That workers’ center, known as CTUL, formed an organizing committee, led a three-mile protest march, held a 12-day hunger strike and sponsored a series of steadily expanding one-day strikes, which aimed to pressure retail powerhouses such as Target and Best Buy, both based in the Twin Cities, to give the janitors a voice at work.

The effort grew more ambitious, with its focus turning towards getting Target to adopt a Responsible Contractor Policy. Target adopted such a policy in 2014, requiring its contractors to comply with labor and wage laws, and the janitors’ focus then changed to forming a labor union, convinced that this was the best way to win better conditions.

Labor experts say this is probably the most successful effort to unionize retail store janitors in the US. “The retail janitorial industry has been overwhelmingly non-union – it was viewed by most people as ‘unorganizable’,” said Stephen Lerner, the former head of the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors Campaign, which unionized tens of thousands of office building janitors nationwide.

Javier Morillo, the president of Local 26, noted a disconnect in the way Target’s janitors are treated. A unionized janitor “who cleans Target’s corporate headquarters makes over $15 an hour and has health benefits”, he said. “But if you clean inside a store, you make close to the minimum wage and have no health coverage or other benefits. It’s strange. It’s the same work.”

The campaign faced some major hurdles, among them that few janitors spoke English; that they were from many countries, from El Salvador to Somalia; and that many were undocumented. Veronica Mendez Moore, CTUL’s co-director, said the effort faced two other big obstacles: employee isolation and the complex structure of the industry.

Her group sought to contact janitors at 300 stores in the Twin Cities area, with many stores having just one or two janitors, who often worked after midnight.

“It’s a complicated industry structure with all these retailers and contractors so it was hard to figure out strategy,” Mendez said. “And these workers felt very isolated. It’s hard for them to feel there are other workers standing up with them. We did a lot of work to find ways to connect workers.” Organizers arranged conference calls that connected dozens of janitors, who for the first time could hear other janitors speaking out. Often, individual organizers drove to stores after midnight and used their mobile phones to connect one or two janitors to a conference call.

“It doesn’t seem revolutionary, but workers haven’t done anything like this,” Mendez said. “It was very intense to connect workers this way. They’re scattered all over the suburbs.”

The increasingly connected janitors grew more emboldened, holding several protests outside Target stores in Minneapolis. For Target these strikes became a headache. After the second strike, Target executives sat down with several CTUL leaders and janitors. Ultimately Target agreed to a Responsible Contractor Policy, which requires contractors not to break the law in fighting against unionization. The janitors also protested at a Best Buy shareholders meeting, helping to persuade that company to hire a new cleaning contractor that CTUL viewed as “responsible”.

“These strikes really helped, they really pressured the companies to do the right thing,” said Pascual Tapia, a janitor at a Target in downtown Minneapolis. He told of a cleaning contractor who cheated him and his coworkers out of overtime by forcing them – when working more than 40 hours a week – to punch in under the name of a “ghost” employee.

CTUL and the janitors brought several lawsuits against such wage theft, winning settlements that totaled more than $1m in back pay and damages. As a result of the campaign, the area’s retailers jettisoned some law-breaking contractors and hired better ones to replace them, helping to shrink the number of major contractors to four, from 20.

The janitors are winning recognition from three cleaning contractors: IFS, Carlson Building Maintenance and Prestige Maintenance. The companies agreed to begin bargaining under a trigger mechanism – only once the janitors gained recognition from contractors that clean 60% of the area’s roughly 300 big box stores. Officials from IFS, Carlson and Prestige did not respond to phone messages.

“The trigger means the contractors aren’t sticking out their necks too much,” Mendez said. In other words, they won’t have to increase costs because of a union agreement unless their competitors are doing the same thing.

Molly Snyder, a Target spokeswoman, said the retailer has a “strong commitment to maintaining high standards” for its cleaners and encouraged its contractors and CTUL “to have an honest and open dialogue that is focused on finding mutually agreement solutions”.

“We are very pleased by the progress that our vendors have made in that effort,” she said.

The Twin Cities campaign is unusual in that a workers’ center has worked so closely with a labor union. Morillo, Local 26’s president, noted that some labor leaders criticize worker centers for doing little to unionize workers.

“The importance of this is that five years ago, this market looked unorganizable, in the way that many low-wage and contingent workers seem unorganizable for traditional collective bargaining,” Morillo said. “That’s the big innovation here.”

Read more from The Guardian

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