In Minnesota, a strike by unionized high rise window cleaners at two companies has entered its second week — an example of the tensions growing across the country as workers seek to collect on promises that employers made to them before the pandemic.
Around 40 cleaners are on strike, representing about half of the city’s entire work force in the specialized industry. They are members of SEIU Local 26, a vocal and politically active union with 8,000 members in the Twin Cities. Though the window cleaners are few in number, they have been able to generate outsized attention locally thanks to the union’s well-honed ability to pull off visible strikes in and around Minneapolis.
Since the beginning of last week, the workers have rallied and held picket lines at major buildings in downtown Minneapolis and at the city’s airport, where some of them have worked cleaning handrails, walkways and glass. On Tuesday, they are rallying outside of the SEIU union hall with City Council members and other elected officials. They say they plan to keep up the drumbeat of strike activity until a contract is secured.
At issue is a contract with three of the city’s property service companies: Apex North, Columbia Building Services and Final Touch. Apex has already agreed to sign the contract, and its employees are working. The other two companies have not, and their workers are on strike. Columbia and Final Touch did not return requests for comment.
Eric Crone, a high rise window cleaner for Columbia and a union shop steward, says that negotiations for this contract actually began in late 2019 — but that workers reluctantly agreed to a year-long pause in negotiations when Covid struck. All of the window cleaners now on strike worked through the entire pandemic. The union says that half of them caught Covid last year. The only time that Crone himself had off all year was when he was quarantining with Covid, which he believes that he caught while working inside the Minneapolis airport.
“We believe we’re skilled workers. That’s what we’re trying to fight for,” says Crone, who earns $29.45 per hour after working in the industry for 12 years. Journeymen with less experience earn just over $26 an hour, for a job that involves working at death-defying heights. Jeff Weber, another striking Columbia employee, says that he has almost died twice during his five years on the job, including one incident that led to him swinging 70 feet in the air across an atrium when a safety system malfunctioned. According to the union, there have been three deaths of high rise window cleaners in Minnesota in the past 15 years.
The need for stricter training and safety standards is one reason why the union is fighting to win a state-certified apprenticeship program in their industry, which would require high rise window cleaners to complete union training in order to be licensed. Weber says that unionized companies are currently forced to compete for work with non-union competitors, who cut corners on safety in order to save money. “It’s my responsibility not to kill someone” on the job, Weber says. But between lax standards at non-union cleaning companies, and aging infrastructure on tall buildings that haven’t been well maintained, “It’s only a matter of time before someone dies again.”
Crone says that despite having a full year to prepare, the employers did not want to resume contract negotiations until three days after the contract expired in mid-August. Instead, they got a strike. Negotiations are continuing as the strike goes on this week. Workers want to raise wages over $30 per hour and reduce the cost of family healthcare plans, in addition to securing their apprenticeship program, which would help to make the entire industry in the state a union stronghold. Despite the fact that the number of workers is small, Crone says that the solidarity and support they have received from residents and elected officials alike has been “overwhelming.”
It may be the case that being forced to work hundreds of feet in the air during a deadly pandemic has toughened these workers to the point that a strike is hardly intimidating. For Weber, his job has already prepared him to weather this battle.
“I’m a firm believer that there’s fear, and there’s being scared,” he says. “I fear nothing. I get scared kinda often, like every day.”
Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.