Twin Cities area retail janitors launched seven strikes in the past six years, including this one in 2015. The workers won a union last week. File photo

Twin Cities area retail janitors launched seven strikes in the past six years, including this one in 2015. The workers won a union last week. File photo

Twin Cities area retail janitors unionize

Updated: October 24, 2016 - 10:09 am

Part of effort to boost wages in low-paying industry

About 600 Twin Cities-area retail janitors have unionized, a milestone in their years of work to boost wages, benefits and working conditions.

The janitors joined Minnesota’s property services union, SEIU Local 26, on Oct. 13, after six years of working with the organization Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) on the effort.

The Twin Cities becomes the first major metropolitan area in the country in which retail janitors have unionized.

“Retail janitorial work was an industry in crisis when workers began organizing,” Veronica Mendez Moore, CTUL’s co-director, said in a statement. “Now, after six years of deep leadership development with workers, … workers have done the impossible.”

Janitors in retail have historically been paid significantly lower wages and benefits than those who work in commercial offices, said Javier Morillo, president of SEIU 26. Stores subcontract out retail janitor work to smaller companies who compete for the contracts, driving down wages.

The effort to boost retail janitors’ pay started in fall 2009, when CTUL members began reaching out to them to form an organizing committee. Workers received their first wage increase in 10 years in 2011, a year in which the industry consolidated from more than 25 companies to just a handful, according to CTUL.

The janitors received a boost in June 2014, when Target adopted a responsible contractor policy, stating that workers have the right to organize without fear of retaliation. Best Buy, Macy’s Whole Foods and Lunds & Byerly’s followed suit this year.

The janitors had agreed not to unionize until 60 percent of the market committed to using contractors that allowed their workers to unionize. The market reached that threshold in September.

CTUL released statements from janitors last week praising the move to unionize. Member and Carlson Building Maintenance employee Maricela Flores, who cleans a Target store, said she felt “very happy and full of hope” by the move.

“There was a time when the stores and the cleaning subcontractors ignored us,” she said. “We would voice our concerns about poverty wages and unsafe working conditions, and they did nothing.”

Congressman Keith Ellison and Sen. Al Franken congratulated CTUL and the janitors in separate statements, as did former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

SEIU Local 26 does not yet have a date to begin negotiating with the contractors, Carlson Building Maintenance, IFS, Leones and Prestige Maintenance USA, Morillo said.