First U.S. Union-Authorized Climate Strike?
Photo by Marie Kanger Born/Shutterstock.com
It isn’t easy for unions to strike to protect the climate. U.S. labor law doesn’t make it easy to strike over anything except wages, hours, and working conditions—even over things like climate change that profoundly affect workers and their future. So it was important news when Minneapolis commercial janitors held an Unfair Labor Practices strike this week to protest employer stalling—including demands that their employers help fight climate change. This is the third in a series of commentaries on The Future of Climate Strikes. For the entire series see here.
On Thursday, February 27, thousands of Minneapolis cleaning workers walked off their jobs and struck their downtown commercial high-rises. Among their key demands was that their employers take action on climate change. It was one of the first—as far as I have been able to discover, the very first—union-sanctioned strike in the U.S. for climate protection demands.
The janitors are members of Service Employees International Union Local 26. They are employed by over a dozen different subcontractors like ABM & Marsden to clean corporate buildings like IDS, Capella Tower, EcoLab, U.S Bank, Wells Fargo, United Health Group, Ameriprise and many more across the Twin Cities. The workers are overwhelmingly immigrants and people of color. One observer described the meeting authorizing the strike as “a rainbow coalition of immigrants from all over the world and people from every race and religion in the state.” The union provided simultaneous interpretation into Spanish, Somali, Vietnamese, Amharic, and Nepalese.
I wanted to know something about the background to the strike, so I called Steve Payne, who wrote an excellent article about plans for the strike in Labor Notes. He spent years as an organizer for Local 26 and now works for the North Star chapter of the Sierra Club. Much of this commentary is informed by my discussion with him.
Payne told me that Local 26’s concern with climate went back at least to 2009. Lots of people both on staff and in the leadership of the union care about issues of climate and the environment, which came up frequently in conversations. Climate was a popular issue that resonated for the union’s members. A high proportion of them were immigrants, and many of them were well aware of the impact of climate change on their homelands. Elsa Guaman, a janitor at ABM who cleans the United Health Group headquarters, said: “We are people from the countryside in Ecuador, and when I was young it was a fertile place. But then the droughts began, and the land didn’t produce anymore. As people who lived on what we took from the earth, we had to leave. We were not alone. Millions of people from the areas near my village left too, in one of the biggest migrations ever out of South America. Now I clean buildings that are some of the biggest polluters in Minnesota, which furthers the same problem that made me immigrate. This must be addressed. I think if we win green cleaning, we can send a message.”
But what could their union do about climate change besides put out statements and support other organizations? They received a partial answer from California janitors who had won demands for “green cleaning.” Local 26 included green cleaning demands in their 2009 negotiations. They won contract language establishing in each company an “Ad Hoc Committee” of union and company representatives. It would “review the use of green chemicals.” It recognized company responsibility for a safe and healthy workplace and “the use of materials that contribute to a healthy and sustainable ecological environment.” The employer would provide training to employees on the “use, mixing and storage” of cleaning chemicals. The employer “shall make every effort to use only green, sustainable cleaning products where possible.”
While this language gave them a toehold on the issue, it was vague and provided nothing that could be enforced. As the latest contract negotiations approached, the union decided it needed something that had more substance and that could be enforced. But this brought them up against a obstacle: the restrictions of U.S. labor law.
Under federal labor law companies are required to bargain over “mandatory” bargaining issues like wages, hours, and working conditions. Unions can make demands in other areas, but that can be a rather futile effort because companies can simply ignore them without fear of legal sanction. The line between what is and isn’t a subject for bargaining is inherently ambiguous and has been the subject of hundreds of NLRB disputes.
The strategy Local 26 developed for addressing this dilemma is similar to one described by Nato Green of SEIU local 1021 in San Francisco. In an article in In These Times, Green wrote, “In my union, we advance our goals on parallel tracks via collective bargaining and public policy, using each to reinforce the other.”
Local 26 put together a package of demands some but not all of which could be brought up at the bargaining table. In the second bargaining session, the union presented a demand for the creation of a Green technician janitorial training program. It brought in janitors from California who already had such a training fund. According to Local 26’s bargaining update for its members: “Our members are uniquely positioned to help lead the change we all need, in helping to convert to clean energy in this especially important sector. Top down policies won’t work if the people who will be responsible for implementing these changes on a day to day basis don’t have a voice. One key is training for front line janitors, as green technicians, so that they have the skills.”
They proposed contract language that would create a “training program for Green Technicians (including $0.20 differential) and expanded use of green cleaning.”
The demand for a training program could be seen as simply a conventional collective bargaining proposal. But it transcended some of the limitations of the previous contract. It created a vehicle for actually implementing, monitoring, and enforcing good practices. It realizes a strategy that has sometimes been called “regulation in civil society.”
Other demands went beyond wages, hours, and working conditions as usually interpreted. In its bargaining update the union also proposed to create a “table” with building owners and community groups focused on climate to develop “bold solutions.” They would include “Green New Deal” policies, getting Minnesota to 100 percent renewable energy, reducing waste, and closing the HERC incinerator that burns trash from downtown office buildings and pollutes nearby neighborhoods.
Days before the strike, Local 26, along with Environment Minnesota, 100%, Minnesota Youth Climate Strike, MN 350, Minnesota Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Climate and Environmental Justice Table, and the North Star Chapter of the Sierra Club issued a report called “Sky High Pollution,” subtitled “How Minnesota corporations pollute our planet and politics, and how community collaboration can help the state reach its 2050 greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.” The report expressed the wider aspects of the union’s fight against climate change. It called for commercial building owners to:
Work with community groups and the union to create an Owner and Community Green Table
Withdraw from the anti-climate Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and end lobbying against clean energy policies
Close the HERC incinerator, a major source both of greenhouse gases and of air pollution that contaminates nearby communities of color
Adopt the union’s proposed Green Cleaning Training Program
Climate change matters in Minneapolis. In December 2019 the Minneapolis City Council declared a climate emergency and demanded a massive mobilization to halt, reverse and address the consequences and causes of climate change. It set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Commercial and industrial buildings account for half of all greenhouse gas emissions in Minneapolis, and the city set a goal of 20 percent reduction by these buildings by 2025. As of 2018, however, they were consuming 6 percent more energy than the base year. Local 26’s determination to take leadership on climate protection targeted a powerful local concern.
At the rally kicking off the strike, the janitors were joined by environmental groups like the Sierra Club, MN350, the BIPOC Climate Table, the 100% campaign, and the Minnesota Youth Climate Strike, whose leaders released a statement supporting the strike: “We, as youth, cannot stand to grow up in a world where corporations increasingly gain capital while minorities continue to be punished. Not only are we sick of being dismissed, but so is this beautiful planet. A push towards green training is a benefit for all that is being denied by management and big corporations with the power to combat the oppression that we face daily. We, along with many other environmental allies, will continue to stand in solidarity with our partners in the SEIU Local 26 of commercial janitors.”
Opposition to the HERC incinerator also builds bridges to the growing climate justice movement, which has organized a coalition based in communities of color to close the incinerator.
The union’s involvement with the wider community was reflected in a “Fighting Today for a Better Tomorrow Week of Action,” overlapping the strike and addressing a range of community issues. It included, for example, a hearing on housing displacement and gentrification with victims of displacement giving testimony to elected officials and clergy, organized by Centro do Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL). Other actions included rallies in support of airport, janitorial, and education workers and for better healthcare.
The union’s focus on climate change demands is part of a growing trend toward “bargaining for the common good.” As a recent article in The American Prospect explains, “Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG) is an innovative way of building community-labor alignments, bringing unions and allies together that go beyond the limits to traditional collective bargaining and jointly shape bargaining campaigns that advance the mutual interests of workers and communities alike.” It argues “we can flip the narrative and make workers and communities not the victims of climate catastrophe, but the protagonists in the struggle for a just, democratic, and truly sustainable world.” The Minneapolis janitors have gone a step beyond “bargaining for the common good” by “striking for the common good”—climate protection.
The janitors’ contract ran out in December, but they agreed to go on working while negotiations progressed. But on February 8, the union janitors unanimously voted to authorize a ULP strike to stop the companies’ Unfair Labor Practices of stalling and refusing to give information. President Iris Altamirano said, “Talks broke down Monday and we’re ready to strike for higher wages, green cleaning jobs programs and the sick days our families deserve. Our members do really hard work, putting their bodies on the line, ensuring buildings across the Twin Cities are clean. Too often our work is invisible because we come to work when others are heading home for dinner, yet many of our members haven’t had dinner with their families in years.”
The purpose of the 24-hour strike was explained by George Mullins, a 30-year janitor who works for Marsden Janitorial cleaning in downtown Minneapolis. “We’ve been bargaining for months and are sick of the excuses. We want our companies to know we are serious.”
Elia Starkweather, a janitor and Local 26 Vice President who works for Harvard cleaning Ameriprise, articulated why climate demands express what workers need just as much as more conventional union demands like higher wages and sick leave: “The bosses continue to say no to everything we’ve asked to help our families, so I’m ready to strike to win what we need. We’re looking for higher wages because the rent keeps going up and our wages need to go up as well, sick days so we can care for our families, and green jobs so our work doesn’t destroy our bodies and our planet.”
On Thursday, February 27, the janitors walked out as planned. They set up picket lines outside the downtown buildings. Then they were joined by youth climate strikers and other supporters in a march through downtown. Steve Payne says, “The strike and march were beautiful and incredible.”
“Everyone I talked to left feeling inspired and energized for their campaigns. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more powerful union action. There were at least a couple hundred environmental allies that joined the picket lines—which is really impressive. The chants shifted from English to Spanish to Somali, people were dancing to hip hop and Latino music. It was a great mixing of all the parts of our movement we need: white middle class environmental activists, young diverse climate strikers, low wage immigrant workers —all fighting for the same set of demands.”
The next shift joined the strike, then on February 28 the janitors went back to work.
Negotiations are scheduled to reconvene in March. The one-day strike, with its wide public support, may lead the employers to become more responsive to the workers demands. Local 26 janitors have struck in the past and they may have to do so again. John Nesse, an attorney who represents a group of ten cleaning companies, has already threatened that, “Replacement workers are one of the options.” If Local 26 is forced to strike again, one thing is clear: It will do so not only as the representative of its own members, but as the champion of everyone who knows they are threatened by climate change. Z