Janitors' union sets strike authorization vote

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January 18, 2010 // UPDATED 12:52 pm - January 25, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott

After two full weeks of working without a contract, a union representing more than 4,000 Twin Cities janitors decided Jan. 23 to plan a strike authorization vote over unfair labor practices. The vote is expected to take place on Saturday, the day of the union’s next member meeting.

SEIU Local 26 — Minnesota’s Property Services Union, which represents security officers and window cleaners in addition to janitors — had arranged for two additional weeks of negotiations at the end of last year, pushing the final deadline for a new contract to Jan. 8. That deadline came and went, with both sides no closer to an agreement.

At a member meeting the following day, the union voted to set another two-week deadline “for companies to get serious,” SEIU Local 26 President Javier Morillo-Alicea said. That deadline expired Jan. 22, which led to the decision to set a strike authorization vote.

“Honestly, I’m surprised by just how little movement there is, period,” Morillo-Alicea said after the Jan. 9 meeting. “It’s a complete refusal to engage. None of the principal issues have even been addressed by the companies.”

“It is unfortunate that the companies have responded by bargaining in bad faith and have pushed us into a public dispute that we sought to avoid,” Morillo-Alicea said in a statement released over the weekend.

Union spokesman David Zaffran said the union is pushing to bring environmentally friendly innovations to the industry while at the same time ensuring good full-time jobs for its members. A transition to day-shift cleaning is a central proposal, which the union says could save building owners up to 8 percent on energy costs annually. Currently, janitors work mostly second shift, causing buildings to leave their lights on long after day-time employees have left.

The Minneapolis-based Blue Green Alliance, a national partnership of labor unions and environmental organizations dedicated to growing jobs in the green economy, will release a report on Tuesday highlighting the economic and environmental benefits of day-shift cleaning. The report will be released during a 11:30 a.m. presentation on the skyway level of the Hennepin County Government Center, a building that recently switched to day-shift cleaning.

Reduction of janitors’ hours also has been a concern. Zaffrann said that many shifts have been cut from eight hours to six hours per night, translating to a 25 percent decrease in income. Under the current contract, a 30-hour week is considered full-time, and all of the large Downtown office towers — which together total more than 500,000 square feet — are required to offer 100 percent full-time positions.

The employers’ proposal would eliminate any restrictions on what jobs have to be full time, Zaffrann said.

The leading building maintenance companies, in a statement released this weekend, have accused SEIU Local 26 of issuing "inaccurate public statements mischaracterizing the companies' proposals."

In the same statement, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Contract Cleaners Association called the unions proposals "simply unrealistic."

"First, these janitors are paid significantly higher wages and benefits than their counterparts in other major Midwestern cities. Second, their compensation package includes excellent health care coverage for which they pay less than 6 percent of the costs. Third, the union proposed un-affordably high pay increases in excess of 15 percent and other significant benefit changes, including, for example, a 44 percent increase in the companies' contributions to family health care coverage. These proposals are simply unrealistic given the current economic environment, which remains extremely challenging. This is especially true for our local real estate market, which has historically high vacancy rates."

The two sides will continue negotiations under the auspices of a federal mediator later this week.