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Janitors who clean the Twin Cities' largest department stores finally unionize

Twin Cities janitors have been organizing for six years, and going on strike off-and-on for three years.

Twin Cities janitors have been organizing for six years, and going on strike off-and-on for three years. Star Tribune

It wasn't a conventional union drive.

It took six years, a 12-day hunger strike, and an unrelenting series of downtown protests, but retail janitors in the Twin Cities have finally formed a union.

The 600 janitors who clean the Twin Cities’ shiniest department stores hail from dozens of countries. Many worked in isolation as employees of disconnected cleaning contractors who often took advantage of their immigration status to cut corners on wage laws. That way, contractors could offer the Targets, Macy’s, Herberger’s, and Best Buys of the world the cheapest labor.  

 

In a myriad of languages, the workers spoke of the same reoccurring abuses: working seven days a week at $8 an hour without health coverage or sick days; being forced to punch in under a different name when they worked more than 40 hours and getting cheated out of overtime; paying for their own cleaning supplies without reimbursement.

By contrast, the unionized janitors who cleaned Target’s headquarters got $15 an hour, plus benefits, for doing the same work as all the others.   

“Retail janitorial work was an industry in crisis when workers began organizing,” said Veronica Mendez Moore, director of the immigrant workers organization Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL).

“Workers faced poverty wages, dangerous working conditions, and rampant wage theft. Everyone considered the industry ‘un-organizable’ because of the fractured nature of the industry.”

Throughout the past three years, janitors working in the metro have held seven day-long strikes. (The first of those strikes featured all of eight workers walking out on the job.) These vulnerable employees ran the risk of retaliation, and some were fired.

There were moments of triumph too.

In February, workers who organized under CTUL to sue Capital Building Services Group, a major janitorial contractor, won more than $400,000 in stolen wages. This year they also got Best Buy and Macy’s to join Target in using responsible contractors who don't skirt labor laws.

Last week, CTUL announced that the janitors have finally won union recognition from three major cleaning contractors: Integrated Facilities Services, Carlson Building Maintenance, and Prestige Maintenance.

Going forward, janitors will be able to collectively bargain for fair scheduling, benefits, and wage increases.