(Video: Centro de Trabadores Unidos en Lucha)
Non-union janitors who clean Target stores in Minnesota say they’ll go on strike unless their employers agree by noon on Sunday to meet and discuss alleged crimes.
The workers are employed by three janitorial contractors—Prestige Maintenance USA, Diversified Maintenance Systems and Carlson Building Maintenance—and work inside Target facilities in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The strike threat follows a series of OSHA charges alleging that employees of those companies were denied proper safety training and locked inside of Target stores, and National Labor Relations Board charges alleging that they were retaliated against for organizing. The charges and the strike threat were spearheaded by the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), a Twin Cities labor group that, as The Nation reported, has been organizing retail cleaning workers for two years.
“I guess I’d say I’m not scared,” Diversified employee and CTUL activist Alejandro Quirino told The Nation (in Spanish). “Because I’m fed up and sick and tired of how they’ve treated us, and how our demands have been ignored. And that’s why I’m going to go on strike. If I get fired, I know I was fighting for what’s right, and putting in what I could to fight for what’s fair.”
CTUL is demanding that contractors meet to discuss the alleged safety and labor law violations, which it says include the firing of two workers less than a week after one of them had appeared in a campaign video. “Management told one of my co-workers that if a worker tries to strike or organize with their co-workers, they’ll be fired,” said Quirino.
CTUL’s deadline is the same day as the strike deadline set by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members who clean commercial offices in the Twin Cities, including Target’s headquarters. CTUL and SEIU have been collaborating in recent months and hope to eventually win formal union recognition and collective bargaining for CTUL members (the workers would become members of SEIU, while remaining members of CTUL, one of the country’s hundreds of alternative labor groups). That means the unionized commercial building janitors and their non-union retail counterparts could soon be on strike together.
CTUL organizer Veronica Mendez said Wednesday that the decision to prepare for a strike emerged in meetings among workers last weekend. She declined to estimate how many of the roughly 150 contracted cleaning workers at Twin Cities Target stores would strike, but said “we’ve got a core group of really strong leaders” mobilizing their co-workers. “More than likely,” said Mendez, “workers will be going on strike on Tuesday.”
In response to an inquiry about the allegations and potential strike facing its contractors, Target spokesperson Molly Snyder e-mailed, “As these individuals are not employed by Target, I’d have to refer you to their employers.” Carlson and Prestige did not respond to requests for comment (in a January interview with The Nation, Prestige’s outside general counsel said that the company complies with the law).
(Photo: Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha)
Asked about the strike threat, Diversified General Counsel Andrea Kiehl said, “We have reports by employees that they feel like they are harassed by the CTUL and do not want to participate. And so it’s our feeling that the CTUL does not have as great of a support among the Diversified employees as…what they portray to the public.”
Kiehl accused CTUL of using the SEIU strike “to promote their own interests,” and rejected CTUL’s claim that its members were striking over illegal intimidation. She noted that “there’s certain things that companies can or cannot do” depending on whether the government finds a strike to be motivated by such “unfair labor practices”. Labor law generally allows companies to “permanently replace” workers who go on strike in order to improve their working conditions (refusing to let them return to work), but not workers whose strike was motivated by illegal intimidation.
Asked whether Diversified would permanently replace workers if they strike next week, Kiehl said, “That’s not a decision that the company has made at this time. But we are committed to serving our customers, and all cleaning will continue whether we have employees that engage in the strike or not.”
As for whether Diversified could grant CTUL’s demand for a meeting, Kiehl said the company “has asked the CTUL on different occasions to provide us with information regarding what working conditions they want to discuss, and we still don’t know what those working conditions are…But Diversified does not intend to talk to CTUL about CTUL unionizing our employees. And CTUL is not an officially registered union.”
Kiehl accused CTUL of misrepresenting Diversified’s benefits, which she said include paid vacation for full-time workers. Asked what portion of Diversified’s workforce qualifies as full-time, Kiehl said that employees’ schedules are dictated by the needs of Diversified’s clients.
Quirino said he wants to win a raise so that he could spend more time with his kids. “I need a second job, where I work another eight to ten hours a day, just to support my family,” he told The Nation. “So I don’t have time to be with my family.” Quirino works with one other co-worker on his shift, doing what he said used to be a three-person job.
CTUL’s Mendez said that the small number of workers cleaning each store imposed additional challenges in organizing, but that workers were inspired by the example of Walmart employees and fast food workers who went on strike in the fall. “We’re looking to that as a model of how we need to stand up…” said Mendez. “We can’t wait for the companies to continue to retaliate.” Given that “workers are very isolated,” she added, “we’ve been figuring out different ways that we can get workers to meet with each other one-on-one…so they can speak to each other and understand their struggle in a broader context.”
“The effect I want the strike to have is that they see us, as workers,” said Quirino. “That they know that our voice counts too, that we have a right to a better salary and to better benefits, and that we have the right to organize.”
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