Travis Schneider stood on a window-cleaning platform along the Target Plaza North high rise in downtown Minneapolis. Working 14 stories up, Schneider used a rope-and-pulley system to lower himself down to the next set of windows.
When the platform got stuck on the system's sliding tracks, Schneider used his body weight to force it along, trusting the platform's railing to hold his weight as he pushed.
The railing snapped. Schneider fell from the deck, dropping four feet before his safety harness caught him.
As Schneider dangled off the platform, his shaken co-worker helped pull his 250-pound body back to safety. Schneider wasn't injured in the tumble.
Schneider's experience isn't uncommon for the workers who clean the tallest buildings in the Twin Cities. The window cleaners say they are often forced to risk their lives with outdated ropes and unsafe anchor points. Complaining about working conditions is a sure way to get sent home without pay, they say.
The safety concerns became a focal point in the union negotiations this month for a new contract for 60 employees at two of the top companies in town. SEIU Local 26 employees at Marsden Final Touch and Columbia Building Services had been without a new contract since February 1 and were locked out of their jobs for eight days after raising safety concerns with their managers.
They say it's a matter of life and death: In the past two and a half years, three local window cleaners have fallen to their deaths.
Derek Eggert has been a window cleaner for 16 years, most recently for Columbia. When he asked his managers for information on the age of their ropes, he says they told him he was being ridiculous. The companies are required to replace ropes three years after they were manufactured, but Eggert says he has had to use ropes past their expiration date.
"I have two little girls, and I want to be able to tell them in the morning that I am going to be home at the end of the day," he says. "I want to have that extra safety and assurance that I know I am not lying to them. I don't want to be the next one to go."
Eggert points to the death of Columbia employee Fidel Danilo Sanchez-Flores in 2007. He was clearing snow from the IDS Tower's Crystal Court when he fell four stories and broke through the building's glass roof. OSHA fined Columbia $25,750 for violations connected to that accident, but the company settled for $15,000.
"It was devastating," Eggert says. "We are a close-knit group and saw him as a father figure."
The two companies said they didn't want to negotiate contracts through the media, but released a joint statement regarding the safety questions: "Our companies have an excellent safety record. We have always taken safety issues seriously, and, of course, comply with all state and federal OSHA regulations. Only last Thursday—one month into bargaining—did the union raise any concerns about employee safety."
Unions often focus on one major issue, such as safety, to bring attention to their fight against the companies, says Barb Kucera, of the University of Minnesota's Labor Education Service. But that doesn't mean the safety concerns are simply a bargaining tactic.
"Sometimes these things build up over time and it takes a contract negotiation to bring those issues forward," Kucera says. "The bargaining table is best way to solve problems with the employer."
The Twin Cities have been struck disproportionately by window-washing accidents. Nationally, there are only three to four window-cleaning deaths a year in a field that employs up to 8,000 people. So three deaths in two and a half years locally may be cause for concern, says Stefan Bright, International Window Cleaning Association safety director. "When the economy goes south, employers look to cut costs, and this is an industry that shouldn't, because safety will be compromised somewhere."
The union's persistence paid off. On April 8, the companies and union members agreed on a new five-year contract that increases safety standards above OSHA requirements.
But non-union window washers won't get the same safety benefits just yet. Greg Nammacher, SEIU Local 26 representative, says the employees are helping Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, craft a bill that would extend stricter safety standards to all window washers.
"These are some real significant steps forward, but union companies can't change the industry," he says. "The end of the lock-out has underscored the importance of focusing on state legislation to protect all industry employees."
Glenn Roehsner says he faces unsafe working conditions every day but feels pressured to get the job done or leave the work site. It took the contract negotiation to give him the strength to speak up.
"We pressure ourselves to work in these conditions, but it's just become too unsafe," he says. "This job doesn't have to be dangerous."