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Working In These Times

Friday, May 27, 2011, 10:43 am

Grocery Store Cleaners Enter Day 7 of Hunger Strike

BY Rose Arrieta

More than 200 people—many of them janitorial workers—marched, rallied and protested in front of Cub Foods grocery store this week in Minneapolis, Minn., to urge the chain to treat their workers better.

They’ve been waiting for a year for Cub Foods to come to the table. They’ve petitioned the chain, sent letters to Cub Foods representatives and sent a petition with hundreds of names, organized delegations to store headquarters. But the chain refuses to waiver.

Ten people have taken up a hunger strike and are now entering Day 7. They’ve pitched their tents near the store in what is called “Camp Hunger.” They say they’ll continue to fast until Cub Foods responds to their demands for fair wages and improved conditions for the workers who clean their stores. On Monday, the workers and their allies delivered letters nationwide to Supervalu stores, which is the parent company of Cub Foods, demanding a Code of Conduct that would ensure fair treatment.

“Workers across the country are concerned about the extreme deterioration of working conditions in the retail cleaning industry nationwide and want to ensure justice not only for retail cleaning workers in the Twin Cities but to ensure that retail cleaning workers across the country don't continue to see their wages drop and their workloads increase,” said Veronica Mendez of the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), an affiliate of the national organization Interfaith Worker Justice.

Last year, I reported on the efforts of janitors at Safeway stores in Northern California to improve working conditions at that chain. Just as Safeway did, Cub Foods says it’s not responsible for the poor treatment of workers because they are subcontracted out to a cleaning company.

That company is Carlson Building Maintenance, whom Cub says is responsible for their workers. (Janitors in the Safeway fight, by the way, eventually ratified a collective bargaining agreement with Safeway's janitorial services contractor, waging the base wages and strengthening health standards).

Cub Foods and Carlson are using a common loophole to wash their hands of any responsibility to the worker. The retail companies contract out to professional maintenance companies. Then they take the lowest bid, pitting the maintenance companies against each other.

While workers used to earn $10 an hour and work with a cleaning crew of four people, their pay has now dropped to $7.50 and the crew has shrunk to two, according to Mendez.

One of the worker-organizers, Mario Colloly Torres, was a cleaner at the store. He told In These Times, “Many who have worked ten years in the industry know there were four workers to a shift and today there are two workers doing the same work. In some stores workers don’t even have time to take a break because the workload is so big.”

Colloly Torres says he worked at the company for several years “without one problem.” Then he started organizing the workers, and says he was abruptly fired. “They make money off the community. And make money cheating the workers,” he said. Charges have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board stating that Cub Foods and Carlson unfairly fired Colloly Torres for organizing coworkers to demand fair wages and working conditions.

“I held two jobs because of the low wages. We work in a place filled with food and yet we can barely feed our families,” says Colloly Torres, adding, "They look for a cleaning company that is going to give the lowest price for the work. The result for us: lower wages and increased workloads.”

Last year, when the campaign for Justice in Retail Cleaning began, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said, “No corporation can escape its responsibility to workers by simply outsourcing their work to some other company that doesn’t observe the rights of those workers.”

Rose Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked in print, broadcast and radio, both mainstream and community oriented—including being a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets on social justice issues.

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