Thousands of janitors in the Twin Cities are preparing to strike, if necessary, for decent wage increases, affordable health care, paid sick days, and in defense of full-time jobs.

These janitors, members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26, clean buildings owned by some of the most profitable corporations and banks in Minnesota, including Wells Fargo ($8 billion in profits in 2009), U.S. Bank ($1.8 billion), Target ($2.2 billion), and Medtronic ($2.2 billion). Yet the cleaning contractors hired by these companies have proposed ZERO wage increases, no paid sick days, increased health care premiums, and a host of other attacks. These cleaning companies are also quite profitable enterprises, with the largest, ABM, a Fortune 1000 company with 100,000 employees and revenues of $3.6 billion (MPR, 11/9/09).

The importance of this struggle was summed up in the words of one worker, a young mother of two, who said, ” The bosses, they sleep easy at night. I wanna sleep easy at night like they do! And if my kids have to do something like this – though I hope they don’t – it will be easier for them because we fought.” … I consider us a gang now. There are more of us than there are of them. We’ve got the dust pans, the brooms, the mops, and if we stop using ‘em, what do you think, they’re gonna start doing the work?

The struggle by Twin Cities janitors deserves the support of all workers and youth, and anyone who is fed up with the greed of the big banks and corporations, who aim to take advantage of the recession to roll back the gains made by workers in order to boost their profits. While CEOs might be able to survive a pay cut (the CEO of Goldman Sachs is “only” getting a $9 million bonus this year – how will he pay the mortgage on his mansions and pay off his yachts and still be able to feed his family?), janitors making less than $13/hour can hardly afford to “tighten their belts” anymore.

The ultimate goal of the cleaning companies and building owners is to revert back to part-time, poverty-wage janitorial jobs, with workers firmly under the thumb of management and afraid to assert their rights. All workers have a stake in this struggle, because defending and expanding the number of good jobs helps counter the race-to-the-bottom and raise standards for all workers.

Janitors are not taking these attacks lying down. In a union meeting in early February, they voted to authorize their bargaining committee to call a strike. The African-American, white, Latino, Somali, and Ethiopian members of the union chanted “Sí se puede” (“Yes we can”) in 5 languages, in an inspiring display of unity. (See video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XglK_L8CaBo)

Janitors have been working without a contract since January, and the companies have offered virtually nothing in negotiations. The biggest company, ABM, is proposing NO pay increase for 2010 and 2011, and then 13 cents in 2012. Marsden, another major contractor, proposes no raise for 2010, and 5 cents in both 2011 and 2012. When workers were presented with the employers’ proposal at a recent union meeting, most laughed at what they consider a sick joke.

Right now, Twin Cities janitors covered under the union contract make $12.97 per hour, a wage that is extremely difficult to raise a family on, or even to survive on alone. But the proposal from the companies amounts to a pay cut, given inflation.

In addition to offering no wage increases, the employers want yearly increases in health insurance premiums paid by workers, while offering the same bad plans. Many workers complain they have racked up thousands of dollars in debt for hospital bills and other medical expenses despite having insurance. The union is demanding better coverage, fighting to achieve free health care like janitors in Boston, Chicago, and Seattle have won. The companies have also refused to accept the union’s demand for three paid sick days per year – an extremely modest demand (and one that is many other countries a constitutional right, with 127 countries guaranteeing at least a week of paid sick days a year – and 102 countries guaranteeing a month or more, while in the U.S. 48% of private sector workers have no paid sick days – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sick_leave).

The companies are also trying to do away with any commitments to full-time work, to allow them to create more part-time jobs. They have refused to give workers job protection when buildings change contractors, refused to guarantee paid breaks on the job, and callously refused to allow workers to save vacation up (crucial to many immigrant workers with elderly relatives and families in other countries).

The union is also calling on the companies to make janitorial jobs “green jobs,” by transitioning to day-shift cleaning instead of having to light buildings at night while workers clean. They also want to move to more environmentally-friendly, safer cleaning products.

There is no reason why janitorial jobs shouldn’t be good jobs, paying a living wage, with good health care, full-time hours, paid sick days, and decent working conditions. Yet for the past 30 years, building owners have shifted to subcontracting work to cleaning companies who often pay poverty wages with no benefits, in an effort to cut costs. SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign has fought against this trend and built a fighting union in numerous cities across the country.

If the union did not exist, the building owners and cleaning companies would be happy to be paying workers $7 an hour, with no benefits and absolutely no rights. The struggle by Twin Cities janitors is a struggle in which all workers have an interest. As one security guard, also a member of SEIU Local 26, put it at a recent union meeting in offering his support to the janitors, “If the janitors don’t fight it will affect everyone,” encouraging the employers to go for blood against the security guards and other workers throughout the cities and surrounding suburbs.

The mainly immigrant janitors are setting a heroic example by fighting back against some of the biggest corporations in the Twin Cities – and the country – during this time of economic recession and corporate assault on working people. This is even more the case given that 1,200 janitors working for ABM lost their jobs in October in a “quiet immigration raid,” “one of the largest immigration crackdowns under the Obama administration to date” (http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/11/09/immigrants-fired/). As one janitor put it, “I really want people to hear — and if possible even get to the ears of President Barack Obama — that we don’t come here for anything other than to work. And if anyone could see the places we come from and were in our shoes, they would do the same thing” (MPR, 11/9/09). Coincidentally, this raid just happened to take place a few months before the janitors’ contract was set to expire.

It is to the enduring credit of these janitors that they are still standing up to their employers, at the bargaining table, in their workplaces, and on the streets. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted … The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Come out and march with SEIU Local 26 on Monday, February 15 at 11:30am, starting at the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. And hear from janitors and union activists about their struggle at a public meeting sponsored by Socialist Alternative, La Raza, and the SEIU Local 26 Solidarity Committee on Tuesday, February 16 at 7pm at the University of Minnesota in Coffman Union Room 211. The union is also looking for supporters willing to walk on the picket lines and even be picket captains.

An injury to one is an injury to all! Support the struggle of Twin Cities janitors!

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