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SEIU janitors begin pickets over wages, sick time

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Picketing outside MSP
About 50 supporters of unionized Twin Cities janitors picket outside Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport's Terminal 1 on Wednesday afternoon. Thousands of union members are expected to participate in the 24-hour strike.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Thousands of unionized Twin Cities janitors are expected to participate in a 24-hour strike Wednesday over wages and paid sick time.

Two dozen people began with a picket outside Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport this afternoon. More demonstrations are scheduled for later in the day in downtown Minneapolis, St. Paul and at the headquarters of Medtronic, Best Buy and UnitedHealth Group.

About 4,000 janitors represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26 could participate in the labor action that was approved late last month. 

They work for companies including ABM Janitorial Services, Marsden Bldg Maintenance and Harvard Maintenance that have contracts to clean about 200 buildings in the Twin Cities. 

The union contract with the companies ended on Dec. 31. The union and a representative of the companies have been in negotiations over the new contract since late last year. 

Brahim Kone, an executive board member of SEIU Local 26 and janitor for 15 years, said workers plan to picket buildings across the Twin Cities on Wednesday afternoon and evening including at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and U.S. Bank Plaza. 

"We're trying to show the companies how important we are," Kone said. "We're right now trying to get them to look at the proposals we have on the table and to do the right thing." 

The union is asking for $15 for both full and part-time workers. Full-time workers under the old contract made at least $14.62 an hour and part-time workers make between $11 and $13 an hour, Kone said. 

Kone said the union also wants limits on workload and an increase in the amount of paid sick days for both full and part-time workers.  

"We're working around all kinds of germs," Kone said. "We only have three sick days, and our employer right now, they give to all the contractors at the airport, nine sick days. If they can afford to give them nine sick days, they can also afford to give us nine sick days."

St. Paul attorney John Nesse is representing the companies in contract negotiations. 

He said in a statement that the union workers already earn well above the average wage in the Twin Cities. 

"In addition to a highly competitive wage rates, employees receive paid vacation, paid holidays, paid sick time, disability pay benefits, and a silver-level health insurance plan — all according to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement the SEIU previously negotiated with the employers," Nesse said in a statement. 

Union representatives haven't adjusted their demands for wage increases during the three months of contract negotiations, Nesse said.  

"The employers respect the union's right to strike," Nesse said. "At the same time, we already have a bargaining session scheduled for February 22nd at the union's request and we look forward to getting back to negotiations."

Members of a Twin Cities worker center called Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) are planning to also walk out on a one-day strike Thursday, according to co-director Brian Merle Payne. 

The non-union workers clean about 30 stores around the Twin Cities like Macy's, Lunds & Byerlys and Sears, Payne said.     

"The theme of workers walking out on strike is standing up to reclaim our dreams," Payne said. "Making minimum wage and often having wages stolen out of your paycheck, it's impossible of being able to live the dream of providing a good education for your kids or providing for your family without having to work two or three jobs."

Some janitors affiliated with CTUL and Capital Services Building Group announced a $425,000 proposed class action settlement Tuesday. 

The workers alleged that they'd been paid less than minimum wage, forced to buy supplies with their own money and not paid for overtime. 

The proposed settlement between the two parties needs final approval by a court, and is scheduled for a hearing at the end of March according to attorney Adam Hansen.