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SEIU Local 26

First U.S. Union-Authorized Climate Strike?

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 2020; images by SEIU Local 26

Above: Thousands of Minneapolis cleaning workers walked off their jobs and struck their downtown commercial high-rises. Among their key demands was that their employers take action on climate change. Quite possibly the first union sanctioned strike in the U.S. for climate protection demands. Credit: SEIU Local 26.

It isn’t easy for unions to strike to protect the climate. U.S. labor law doesn’t make it easy to strike over anything except wages, hours, and working conditions – even over things like climate change that profoundly affect workers and their future. So it was important news when Minneapolis commercial janitors held an Unfair Labor Practices strike this week to protest employer stalling – including on demands that their employers help fight climate change. This is the third in a series of commentaries on The Future of Climate Strikes. For the entire series see here.

On Thursday February 27 thousands of Minneapolis cleaning workers walked off their jobs and struck their downtown commercial high-rises. Among their key demands was that their employers take action on climate change. It was one of the first—as far as I have been able to discover, the very first—union sanctioned strike in the U.S. for climate protection demands.

The janitors are members of Service Employees International Union Local 26. They are employed by over a dozen different subcontractors like ABM & Marsden to clean corporate buildings like IDS, Capella Tower, EcoLab, U.S Bank, Wells Fargo, United Health Group, Ameriprise and many more across the Twin Cities.[1] The workers are overwhelmingly immigrants and people of color. One observer described the meeting authorizing the strike as “a rainbow coalition of immigrants from all over the world and people from every race and religion in the state.” The union provided simultaneous interpretation into Spanish, Somali, Vietnamese, Amharic, and Nepalese.[2]

I wanted to know something about the background to the strike, so I called Steve Payne, who wrote an excellent article about plans for the strike in Labor Notes.[3] He spent years as an organizer for Local 26 and now works for the North Star chapter of the Sierra Club. Much of this commentary is informed by my discussion with him.

Twin Cities Janitors and Guards Feature Climate and Housing in Their Strike Demands

By Steve Payne - Labor Notes, February 20, 2020; images by SEIU Local 26

“Twin Cities janitors and security officers vote to authorize strike over pay and sick leave,” read the headline in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

It’s true that those are among the workers’ top demands. But Service Employees (SEIU) Local 26’s fight is also for something bigger: affordable homes and a healthy planet for us all.

The union is demanding that companies negotiate over climate emissions and pay more to support affordable housing.

On February 8, 500 janitors, security officers, and their allies crowded into a warehouse space normally used for photo shoots. Banners lined the walls as people waved signs.

Local 26 has lined up every single one of its contracts, covering 8,000 workers, for this moment. Commercial office janitors, retail janitors, security officers, window cleaners, and airport workers are all fighting simultaneously.

The room was a rainbow coalition of immigrants from all over the world and people from every race and religion in the state. The union provided simultaneous interpretation into Spanish, Somali, Vietnamese, Amharic, and Nepalese. Chants in multiple languages filled the air.

Supporters from other unions and the city’s regional labor federation were there, along with a more unusual set of allies—representatives of the state’s environmental movement, including MN350 and young climate strikers.

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