Dirty Work

After a union victory in Houston, local janitors are gearing up for new labor negotiations

The last time Javier Morillo-Alicea was involved in a protest, he was nearly trampled by a police horse and spent 48 hours in a Houston jail. That demonstration, on November 16, was in support of 1,700 striking janitors in Houston.

But on a recent weekday morning, Morillo-Alicea, the president of Service Employees International Union Local 26—which represents 4,200 janitors in the metro area—promises that today's rally will be much less dramatic. More than 100 people have gathered outside the Hennepin County Government Center shortly before noon. Many are wearing red and white, Santa Claus-style stocking caps and displaying signs that read, "All janitors want for Christmas is health care." Some sport safety orange vests emblazoned with the phrase "Labor's back!" while others opt for purple garments demanding "Justice for janitors."

The predominantly Hispanic group makes its way through the government center and heads north via the downtown skyway system. They don't chant or hand out literature as they pass through One Financial Plaza, the IDS Center, and Saks Fifth Avenue. The masses of office workers heading off to lunch are left to draw their own conclusions about the intent of the march. "A lot of the work that we do, because people work on the second shift, is to just make the janitors visible," explains Morillo-Alicea, in an interview prior to the rally. "No racket, no noise, just walking through."

Javier Morillo-Alicea, president of SEIU Local 26, rallies janitors in downtown Minneapolis
Paul Demko
Javier Morillo-Alicea, president of SEIU Local 26, rallies janitors in downtown Minneapolis

That silent march through downtown Minneapolis last week was the first public sign of a simmering dispute between Local 26 and the 18 companies that employ janitors to clean Twin Cities office buildings. The labor contract governing wages and working conditions for the janitors expires at the end of the year. Negotiations over a new pact began last month, but progress has been slow. No further talks are scheduled between the two sides. "Right now their offer to us is pretty draconian," says Morillo-Alicea. "We're very, very far apart."

Last month, janitors in Houston represented by SEIU drew national headlines when they reached a labor accord that will substantially bolster wages and benefits for 5,300 workers. But locally, the fight over a new contract is just beginning. Perhaps the most divisive issue is what percentage of workers will be employed full-time. Under the expiring three-year labor contract, the largest office buildings (those greater than 250,000 square feet) are required to have 80 percent of workers be full-time. This means that they work at least 30 hours per week and receive benefits such as health insurance and paid vacation. According to Local 26, roughly half of its 4,200 members are now full-time.

Kadijo Mohamed, for instance, has worked for Marsden custodial services for five years cleaning the Wells Fargo Home Mortgage building in Minneapolis. In January, the married mother of four finally became a full-time worker, boosting her pay by more than $2 an hour to $11.77.

The employers, however, are now looking to scrap the full-time work provision, arguing that it's too costly. "The companies want us to move backward to part-time, with no benefits, no health care, nothing," says Mohamed, a native of Somalia, speaking through an interpreter at last week's rally. "We can't afford to do that because we lose everything. We want to move forward; we don't want to move backward."

The other primary stumbling block, according to Local 26, is health coverage. Currently, the 18 cleaning companies are required to contribute a lump amount, $230 monthly, toward the insurance program of their choice per full-time worker. "The problem with [the employers] choosing their own plan and contributing a dollar amount is there's a reverse incentive for making it affordable," says Morillo-Alicea. "The more expensive the plan is, the fewer people take it." Mohamed, for example, is now eligible for employer-subsidized health insurance, but says that it's too expensive for her to afford. Local 26 would like to move to a single health-insurance plan offered by all cleaning contractors.

Further complicating negotiations is a wrinkle unique to janitorial work. The workers are not employed directly by the companies that own the office buildings, but rather by subcontractors. This means that Local 26 sits down at the bargaining table with representatives of the various cleaning companies, but that the real power to get a deal done still rests with the building owners. "They are our direct employers," Morillo-Alicea says of the cleaning companies, "but the people who pay the bills are the building owners and managers. It's always a delicate dance."

Indeed, Tina Hoye, president of the Greater Minneapolis Building Owners & Managers Association, insists that they have no role in the negotiations. "We're definitely on the sidelines," she says.

Jeff Southard, regional vice president for ABM Janitorial Services, the largest of the cleaning companies, says that he can't comment on negotiations, owing to a "confidentiality agreement." He refers questions to attorney Allen Siegel, who is representing the employers, known collectively as the Minneapolis-St. Paul Service Contract Cleaner's Association, in negotiations. Siegel did not return two calls seeking comment.

The current contract talks in the Twin Cities follow a major organizing victory for SEIU in Houston. Last month the union successfully negotiated a first contract for 5,300 janitors in the city. The labor pact includes wage increases of more than 50 percent, to $7.75 an hour, over the life of the three-year contract. The workers will also receive access to health insurance and additional hours as part of the agreement. "This is a huge step forward for the industry, for low-wage workers," says Morillo-Alicea. "And of course this is an organizing victory in the south, which is huge."

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