Twin Cities janitors strike over wretched pay and the squeeze from big box retailers

Janitorial workers across the Twin Cities went on strike Tuesday to ask for better wages and respect

Janitorial workers across the Twin Cities went on strike Tuesday to ask for better wages and respect

Leroy Graham, 64, takes tremendous pride in his job cleaning the Sears store in Coon Rapids. He likes the people, he likes making things sparkle. After three years in retail cleaning, he's got a radiant philosophy: "What I like most is making sure I do the best I can when I can. I'll clean anything as long as it's dirty."

Yet over those three years, Graham hasn't seen a single raise from his $9 an hour wage. He doesn't have paid sick days, nor vacation days.

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"If you've never gotten a raise, you'd definitely like to know what that feels like," Graham says. "It should make you feel like they care about you, like you're not just a number. I'm out there doing a job I'd do anyway, but having a good wage would definitely make me feel better about it."

Graham joined janitors who work at more than 50 big box stores across the Twin Cities in a day-long strike on Tuesday. Marching in a picket line outside Macy's in downtown Minneapolis, the workers demanded higher wages, better benefits, and more respect for non-union janitors.

Having a union, apparently, makes all the difference. Late last month, eight non-union custodians working for cleaning contractor Capital Building Services Group -- which assigns workers to clean Macy's and Herberger's stores -- filed a lawsuit claiming minimum wage violations, unpaid overtime, and withheld pay stubs. Some alleged that after being forced to pay for their own cleaning supplies, they were bringing home only $5 an hour.

Leroy Graham

Leroy Graham

Workers' rights advocates Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) prefaced the strike with a report on growing numbers of wage theft cases across Minnesota. According to "Held Up Without a Gun" by CTUL, large department stores like Macy's and Herberger's force janitorial companies into fierce competition to underbid each other.

These companies in turn cut labor costs by chipping away at the minimum wage or failing to pay workers at all, the report claims.

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