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March 1, 2010 // UPDATED 1:46 pm - March 1, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott

// Hours before a scheduled strike, Downtown janitors celebrate a new employment contract //

After nearly two months of heated negotiations and threats to walk off the job, Downtown janitors may have a new employment contract as early as this Saturday.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26 — which represents over 4,000 Downtown janitors, as well as security officers and window cleaners — announced this morning that a tentative contract agreement with the Minneapolis–Saint Paul Contract Cleaners Association had been reached early Sunday. The announcement came just days after janitors had made concrete plans for a strike, which was to begin at 4 p.m. today.

The union will vote to ratify the contract on Sat., Mar. 6. Once ratified, the contract will take effect immediately, continuing through Dec. 31, 2012.

Congressman Keith Ellison and several leaders from the local chapter of the Sierra Club joined janitors this morning for a celebratory press conference in the Minneapolis City Hall Rotunda.

According to SEIU Local 26 president Javier Morillo, the final negotiations began on 1 p.m. Saturday afternoon and continued around the clock until 8 a.m. Sunday morning. “In the space of those hours, we settled all outstanding issues,” he said.

The new agreement institutes many of the proposals the janitors had aggressively lobbied for, including support for green cleaning initiatives, vastly improved health care coverage and a first-of-its-kind guarantee of job security in the event that buildings change cleaning companies. The agreement also includes a guarantee of an 8-hour day for all full-time janitors by 2012 — currently a 6-hour day is considered full-time — as well as the creation of a specific process for when building owners choose to transition to day-shift cleaning.

All janitors will receive a $0.25 raise upon ratification. The raise, combined with the transition to 8-hour shifts, will translate to an income increase of up to 38 percent for full-time janitors by Jan. 1, 2012, Morillo said. About 55 percent of janitors currently work full-time.

Morillo especially heralded the new health care plan, which he called a “significant breakthrough.” The new contract will put all janitors on one quality plan, he said, which will have an out-of-pocket maximum of $5,000. In addition, the companies’ contribution to that plan will jump by $144 per month over the next 21 months.

“If I had this last year, I wouldn’t be so strapped with medical bills,” said Blanca Pineda, a janitor who works in Roseville. Pineda also praised the contract's commitment to use more environmentally friendly cleaning products. The harsh products at her current job, she said, have caused her to lose her sense of smell.

According to Margaret Levin, executive director of Sierra Club’s North Star chapter, the new contract’s green provisions are “a unique victory for us. It really illustrates the breadth of the so-called green job industries,” she said. “It’s not just energy and manufacturing. The service industry, and really all sectors of the economy, can implement environmental innovations while still supporting family jobs.”

The janitors’ campaign, led by Morillo, was an aggressive one, often applying pressure through dramatic public demonstrations. The janitors organized several skyway marches, and in February loudly disrupted a meeting of the state’s top bankers in St. Paul.

Of the union’s aggressive approach, Morillo said, “not only do we get heard, but we get results. I think a lot of people identified with our fundamental question: how long will we allow a bad economy to be used as an excuse for why we have to settle for less and less?”