Janitors, security officers vote to authorize strike

MINNEAPOLIS - In back to back votes, SEIU Local 26 security officers and janitors voted unanimously to authorize their respective bargaining committees to call a strike at any time.

Both groups of workers have been working under expired contracts since Dec. 31. The votes were Feb. 9. The workers are among the lowest-paid in the metro area.

The 6,000 janitors and security officers work for many of the same contractors, providing services at downtown and suburban workplaces for many of the Twin Cities' largest corporations.

"Never before have janitors and security officers been negotiating a contract at the same time," said Javier Morillo-Alicea, president of SEIU Local 26. "We have a common goal - to move our families and our community forward... Our employers have a common goal - they want to move us backward."

Security contractors' proposals include moving hundreds of full-time positions to part-time, eliminating all benefits and access to health care. Janitorial contractors' proposals include cuts to more than 50 percent of janitors, including pay cuts as high as 40 percent.

Before the strike votes, the janitors and security officers who filled an auditorium at the Minneapolis Convention Center heard from their bargaining committee members, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and labor and community allies.

Brahim Kone, a janitor at Flint Hills Refinery, and member of the janitors' bargaining committee, reported: "The companies want to take us 10 years backwards... They want all the buildings in the suburbs to go from full-time to part-time." That would mean a pay cut from $13.42 per hour to $10.00 per hour. Going to part-time, he added, also meant that "the health benefits will be cut."

"We are being treated unfairly," Kone said. For Kone, the stakes are very real and very personal. He and his wife, who is in school, have two children. "I am the only one working," he said. "My income is everything... My house is on the line for this... Going part-time would be suicide."

Gene Worley, SEIU Local 26 member and security officer at Town Square, is a member of the security officers' bargaining committee. "We've bargained in good faith but we have received unrealistic counter-offers," he said. "Now is the time to make a stand... We've had enough of their stalling."

Worley noted the gains that security officers won from a one-day strike five years ago. They won modest wage increases, a health plan for individuals, and two sick days. "Really?" Worley asked. "What about the rest of the flu?" He said he worked while sick recently because he had used up all his sick days. The time is now, he added, for security officers to get affordable family health care coverage.

Speakers were flanked by posters showing the sky-high salaries of the corporate CEOs whose offices are cleaned and kept safe by SEIU Local 26 members, low wage workers who are being asked to take wage cuts. One poster noted that U.S. Bank CEO Richard Davis earns the equivalent of $6,500 per hour.

"It's morally wrong," said Ellison, who addressed the SEIU Local 26 janitors and security officers before the vote. "Today is a very serious moment in the lives of everyone here. We know it is a big deal...I am so proud of you and your courage.

"Right now you are fighting for your individual families and for your union," Ellison said. "If you will fight here, working people all over America will fight."

Bill McCarthy, president of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation pledged the support of the federation's 125 affiliated unions and 75,000 members. "Your fight for justice is our fight," he said. Minnesota AFL-CIO president Shar Knutson also offered the support of the state labor federation and its 1,000 affiliated unions and 300,000 members. SEIU, including Local 26, is a member of Change To Win.

"Don't be bullied," urged Anthony Newby, director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. "These people are trying to take away your ability to provide for your family."

Holding aloft "Yes!" signs printed in five languages, first the SEIU Local 26 security officers and then the SEIU Local 26 janitors stood to vote to authorize their bargaining committee to call a strike. After the strike votes passed unanimously, Local 26 president Morillo-Alicea had a message for the cleaning contractors and security contractors: "We are ready and willing to negotiate. Nobody wants to strike. If you're going to continue to disrespect us at the bargaining table, then we will strike."

To SEIU Local 26 members, Morillo-Alicea said: "This concludes our vote - but not our work."

Steve Share is the editor of Minneapolis Labor Review.

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