Minnesota, by many rankings, is one of the most racially unequal, segregated places in the country. There are lots of pieces in the news about this, but we hear more talk than we see action. Is Minnesota working to fix this problem, or are we sitting on our hands?
On Wednesday, janitors from across the Twin Cities are ready to take action and start addressing the problem.
After months of stalling and delays from our employers, we will walk off the job on a one-day Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike. When we held a strike vote in January, the result was a unanimous "yes" to authorize the strike. I was one of those voting yes.
There are a many reasons I will be going on strike. Most important, as a father of four and grandfather to 16, I am extremely worried about our state's awful racial and income disparities. These aren't abstract problems to me.
Over 90 percent of the janitors in our union, SEIU Local 26, are people of color. Janitorial jobs in the Twin Cities were considered good jobs in the 1970s and '80s: decent pay (equal to over $15 per hour in today's dollars); pensions; real sick time; fair workloads. The workers were also predominantly white.
As jobs were subcontracted and pay and benefits were decreased, employers recruited people of color and immigrants for these jobs. Now, some janitors are paid as little as $11 an hour while they clean the buildings that house some of the wealthiest corporations in the state. This process has hurt workers of all races, as employers have pitted us against each other and seen their profits skyrocket.
The systems of inequality in our state, both racial and economic, didn't happen by accident. They were created. With our contract demands, we are fighting to turn back the tide on this broken system.
Our proposal calls for a $15-per-hour floor for all janitors. We found that these well-earned raises would pump over $25 million into our local economies every single year. No difficult or complicated process would be involved. Paying people fair wages would help to lift up the communities who have most been left behind in our state. This is an immediate, private-sector step to start addressing our state's disparities.
Disparities aren't just confined to wages. While pay and benefits are declining for many working families, workload keeps increasing for all too many of us. When janitors clean the equivalent of over 20 homes per night, as many in the Twin Cities do, it wears on our bodies and affects our ability to spend time with our families. That is why we are fighting for language that reins in the "do more with less" mantra that so many people in our state face.
We want to win a fair contract for the 4,000 janitors represented by our union in the Twin Cities, but we also want to start a larger conversation. Are we OK that CEOs make 300 times what their average employees do? Do we believe that hard work should be rewarded with pay and benefits that allow for us to provide a better life for our children? Are we OK with the Twin Cities having these huge disparities?
Our vote to strike was our answer to these questions. We are saying "no more" to the status quo that has divided us by race and left the vast majority of us falling further and further behind the wealthy elite.
I want my grandchildren to grow up in a world that is more just and fair. I want our state to be more equal. I want all working people, regardless of job title or race, to be paid a wage that supports their family.
A strike is a big step, but a step we feel like we have to take both for our families and to help move our state in a better direction. It is scary, but not as scary as doing nothing. The racial and economic divides in our state are too deep, too painful and too destructive for us to sit on our hands. We are ready to take action and hope the community will join us in our shared fight.
Bryant Cooper is a janitor in the Twin Cities and a member of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26.