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Minneapolis-St. Paul window cleaners, members of Service Employees International Union Local 26, won a major victory after an intense fight for better work conditions and pay. On August 16, the day after their contract had expired with Columbia Building Services and Final Touch, SEIU Local 26 went on an Unfair Labor Practices strike calling for better pay, training and safety.
The companies originally were on board with the demands that the workers asked for back in 2019. But when COVID struck, Local 26 agreed to hold off until the pandemic subsided. Closer to when the contract was set to expire in early August, it became clear that the companies were not planning on honoring their original promise. A third company, Apex North LLC, did agree to the demands before the contract expired.
When you work in an industry where you can be hundreds of feet up in the air, proper training can mean the difference between life and death. Jeffery Weber, a member of SEIU Local 26 and a window washer, talks about his own near-death experiences: “I’ve been in two life and death accidents in City Center. I swung across the whole atrium, 70 feet, and luckily lived through it. I was suspended in that atrium once, six stories off the ground, hanging on my harness. I went out there without proper training and they told us to go anyway.”
One of the demands that the union won was a state-recognized apprentice program. But this is one of only a few such programs for window washers in the country.
On top of better job training, the union asked for better safety precautions when it comes to COVID. During the pandemic, the window washers were asked to help with the cleaning and sanitation of the insides of many of the buildings they worked at. Out of the nearly 80 workers statewide, nearly half had contracted COVID while working inside.
The workers also demanded a pay increase. For a job that requires the level of skill needed and the inherent risk factor, the average journeyman wage of $25.20 an hour is an insult. Eric Crone, a window cleaner and union steward said, “If you ask someone on the street how much someone who is up on the buildings gets paid they always guess higher than what we currently get. It feels like we have been disrespected.” The window washers demanded an initial $2/hour raise with two additional smaller raises over the life of the contract.
SEIU local 26 window workers held picket lines and demonstrations every day of the strike. Members of the community showed up in support from City Hall to the numerous buildings with cleaning contracts serviced by the union members. Janitors at the buildings who are also members of SEIU Local 26 refused to cross the picket line as well as other union workers, showing worker solidarity across trades and unions themselves.
The new labor contract was approved on Thursday, August 26 at 1:00 a.m. Most workers returned to work Monday, August 30 with their newly won and well-deserved concessions.