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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.

Trashed: Inside the Deadly World of Private Garbage Collection

By Kiera Feldman - Pro Publica, January 4, 2018

Shortly before 5 a.m. on a recent November night, a garbage truck with a New York Yankees decal on the side sped through a red light on an empty street in the Bronx. The two workers aboard were running late. Before long, they would start getting calls from their boss. “Where are you on the route? Hurry up, it shouldn’t take this long.” Theirs was one of 133 garbage trucks owned by Action Carting, the largest waste company in New York City, which picks up the garbage and recycling from 16,700 businesses.

Going 20 miles per hour above the city’s 25 mph limit, the Action truck ran another red light with a worker, called a “helper,” hanging off the back. Just a few miles away the week before, another man had died in the middle of the night beneath the wheels of another company’s garbage truck. The Action truck began driving on the wrong side of the road in preparation for the next stop. The workers were racing to pick up as much garbage as possible before dawn arrived and the streets filled with slow traffic. “This route should take you twelve hours,” the boss often told them. “It shouldn’t take you fourteen hours.”

Working 10- to 14-hour days, six days per week, means that no one is ever anything close to rested. The company holds monthly safety meetings and plays videos, taken by cameras installed inside the trucks, of Action drivers falling asleep at the wheel. “You’re showing us videos of guys being fatigued, guys falling asleep,” a driver told me. (All Action employees asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation.) “But you aren’t doing anything about it.”

“In the history of the company I am sure there have been times where supervisors have inappropriately rushed people,” said Action Carting CEO Ron Bergamini. “They shouldn’t be, and they’d be fired if they ever told people to run red lights or speed. But you have to find the balance between efficiency and safety, and that’s a struggle we work on every day. But you cannot turn around and say, ‘Hey just take your time, go as long as you want.’” He pointed out that workers can anonymously report concerns to a safety hotline. As to the questions of overwork and driver fatigue, Bergamini responded, “That’s a struggle that the whole industry has — of getting people to work less.”

In the universe of New York’s garbage industry, Action is considered a company that takes the high road. A union shop, it offers starting pay of about $16 per hour for helpers and $23 for drivers, far more than many other companies. And unlike some other companies, Action provides high-visibility gear and conducts safety meetings. But since 2008, the company’s trucks have killed five pedestrians or cyclists.

In New York City overall, private sanitation trucks killed seven people in 2017. By contrast, city municipal sanitation trucks haven’t caused a fatality since 2014.

Pedestrians aren’t the only casualties, and Action isn’t the only company involved in fatalities. Waste and recycling work is the fifth most fatal job in America — far more deadly than serving as a police officer or a firefighter. Loggers have the highest fatality rate, followed by fishing workers, aircraft pilots and roofers. From the collection out on garbage trucks, to the processing at transfer stations and recycling centers, to the dumping at landfills, the waste industry averages about one worker fatality a week. Nationally, in 2016, 82 percent of waste-worker deaths occurred in the private sector.

There are two vastly different worlds of garbage in New York City: day and night. By day, 7,200 uniformed municipal workers from the city’s Department of Sanitation go door-to-door, collecting the residential trash. Like postal workers, they tend to follow compact routes. They work eight-hour days with time-and-a-half for overtime and snow removal and double-time for Sundays. With a median base pay of $69,000 plus health care, a pension, almost four weeks of paid vacation and unlimited sick days, the Department of Sanitation workforce is overwhelmingly full time and unionized. It’s also 55 percent white, and 91 percent male.

But come nightfall, an army of private garbage trucks from more than 250 sanitation companies zigzag across town in ad hoc fashion, carting away the trash and recycling from every business — every bodega, restaurant and office building in the five boroughs. Those private carters remove more than half of the city’s total waste.

Women Lead Sanitation Strike at Massive Education Complex in China

By Yi Xi - Labor Notes, October 13, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

For two weeks, sanitation workers gathered daily on the lawns of Guangzhou’s Higher Education Mega Center—a complex of ten universities serving 200,000 students that has taken over Xiaoguwei island—in the latest of a series of Guangzhou sanitation strikes.

The strike erupted August 26 after the sudden replacement of a contractor jeopardized the jobs of 212 sanitation workers, jobs many had held for a decade.

By the time it came to an end September 9, workers had won an agreement that included severance pay of 3,000 yuan (about $489 U.S.) per year of service.

Tensions are still simmering over whether the new company will rehire all veteran workers as promised. But although the dispute isn’t settled yet, its significance is clear.

This strike, a symptom of the increasing privatization of basic urban services, sets a promising precedent for solidarity between locals and migrants, for women workers' leadership, and for student-worker collaboration.

50 Years After Memphis Sanitation Workers Went On Strike, Remembering MLK’s Words

By Marin Luther King - transcript, April 3, 1968

Thank you very kindly, my friends. As I listened to Ralph Abernathy in his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about. It's always good to have your closest friend and associate say something good about you. And Ralph is the best friend that I have in the world.

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