Striking janitors in Minneapolis. Photo by Trang Do.
The chemicals Maricela Flores uses to clean a Minnesota Target store’s floors are powerful enough to cut through her skin. Yet Flores says the contract cleaning company she works for, Carlson Building Maintenance, failed to give her protective gloves until after she participated in a February strike organized by the local labor group Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha.
Carlson, which did not answer requests for comment, fired Flores soon after the strike. Although management never said so, rumors at work indicated the action was likely retaliation for her involvement with CTUL. With the group’s help, Flores returned to her job. The brush with unemployment would not be enough to quell her fight.
Now Flores is striking again, this time demanding that her employer and other contractors stop retaliating against store cleaners for organizing with CTUL.
CTUL launched a forty-eight-hour strike Monday, calling on subcontractors to clear the way for Minneapolis and St. Paul retail janitors to form a union. The strikers work for Carlson Building Maintenance, Diversified Maintenance, Prestige Maintenance USA and Eurest Services, which are contracted to clean Target, Kohl’s, Kmart, Home Depot and Sears stores. (Target declined to speak to The Nation, and none of the affected contractors responded to interview requests.)
Approximately thirty workers from twenty-five mostly Target retailers walked off the job Monday. Throughout the day on Tuesday, around 250 protesters picketed outside Target’s flagship downtown Minneapolis store. Several workers will fly to the corporation’s annual meeting in Denver Wednesday to talk to executives and shareholders about the reality faced by workers who clean Target stores.
CTUL has been working to organize area retail janitors for three years. The workers center does not have the same rights as a union to enforce labor contracts or bargain collectively, but one local labor leader said the group is better than traditional unions at organizing isolated retail store janitors. CTUL hopes that their organizing will eventually result in workers’ gaining representation by the local Service Employees International Union. The union represents local commercial building janitors and is a partner of CTUL.
The group is one of a proliferating number of non-union labor groups around the United States, which are organizing Walmart employees, restaurant workers, taxi drivers, farm laborers and domestic workers. On June 7, Walmart workers finished a nearly two-week-long strike organized by OUR Walmart. They, too, demanded an end to retaliation against worker-activists.
“Recently workers have been reporting more and more examples of how the contractors are retaliating against them,” says CTUL organizer Brian Payne. He says retaliation can range from subtle changes in managers’ treatment of janitors to workers being fired or suspended.
Flores is nervous about what will happen when she returns to work later this week, but Payne says she should have nothing to fear. Since the janitors are protesting illegal retaliation by employers, he says the action counts as an “unfair labor practices strike,” which labor law protects. Employers are legally required to allow this class of strikers to return to work without discipline or fear of being fired.
The intimidation experienced by workers risks discouraging them from fighting for CTUL’s ultimate goal: a living wage and benefits for all retail janitors, guaranteed by a union-negotiated labor contract.