The union representing nearly 8,000 janitors, security guards and airport service workers announced Monday its members are prepared to begin striking in one week at Best Buy, Target, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and several large office towers and venues across the Twin Cities.

The guards and janitors are members of SEIU Local 26 and work for about 35 subcontractors that are responsible for cleaning or guarding scores of the best-known buildings across the metro.

The action is the latest in a string of contentious negotiations that could make March a huge month for picket lines. Employers are saying they can't give big pay bumps this year; workers say they deserve more than is being offered and also better retirement benefits and working conditions.

The teachers union in St. Paul, which represents about 3,600 educators, on Monday authorized a strike date of March 11. Last week, 400 Minneapolis Public Works water treatment, sewer, trash collectors and other workers voted nearly unanimously in favor of authorizing a strike that could begin as soon as Saturday. And 600 workers at seven Twin Cities nursing homes announced they will conduct a one-day strike on March 5.

"All of these different groups are flowing into the same deadline of early March. It's pretty unique to have an alignment of unions with strike dates at around the same time," said Greg Nammacher, president of SEIU Local 26. "That is something that hasn't happened before."

The strike actions continue a trend seen in 2023. More than 458,000 workers across the country were involved in strikes in 2023, up 280% from 2022, according to data released Wednesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Four bargaining sessions remain before Saturday's deadline for the janitors and security guards. The two sides have been negotiating since November. If no agreement is reached, the union members will begin striking next Monday, union officials said during a meeting Monday morning.

The SEIU worked to coordinate its strike date with other unions during several public events and rallies last week, Local 26 officials said.

Union members, who voted Feb. 3 to authorize a strike, are demanding better pay, a pension and significantly improved training, especially for retail security guards who respond to thefts and other crimes, union officials said.

If the guards and janitors strike, the impact could be widespread. Represented employees work at Ikea and Lunds & Byerlys, among other stores. They also work at the airport, for Delta and at office buildings from 3M's campus in Maplewood to U.S. Bank, Ameriprise and IDS Center towers in downtown Minneapolis. Others work at venues including U.S. Bank Stadium, Target Center and the Minneapolis Convention Center.

About 5,000 of the SEIU members are Minnesota office and retail janitors who work directly for large subcontractors such as ABM Industries, Marsden, Harvard Services Group, Carlson Building Maintenance, IFS Group and ISS Facility Services.

About 2,000 of the union members work for security outfits including American Security/Marsden, GardaWorld and subsidiary Best Crowd Management.

Union officials said they delayed a strike for a month in the hopes interim bargaining might produce four master labor contracts that would apply to dozens of employers.

"Pay is absolutely one of the biggest issues. The last time that we bargained for all these units was January of 2020, the month right before the pandemic hit," said Nammacher. "We have seen inflation of 17 percent and our wages have not kept up. [Workers] are so frustrated now."

John Nesse, — the attorney negotiating a master contract on behalf of 10 commercial janitorial employers who belong to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Contract Cleaners Association (MSPCCA) — said the union is making "extraordinary demands." He said the the 4,000 office cleaners already "receive an industry-leading wage and benefits package that is significantly above our metro average."

The union is seeking 30% to 50% wage increases over four years, a pension, lower health insurance premiums and more vacation and holidays, Nesse said.

Given the move to hybrid work and high office vacancy rates, employers are also "mindful of the economic challenges currently facing the Minneapolis-St. Paul commercial office market," Nesse said. "We are committed to negotiating an agreement in the mutual interest of all parties, including our employees, our customers and our cleaning companies."

Officials with the GardaWorld subsidiary Best Crowd Management said in an email the union "has proposed over 100 changes to our longstanding agreement, and it takes time to negotiate these."

The company has been "actively participating in negotiations with SEIU Local 26 and we're committed to reaching a mutually beneficial agreement that addresses the needs and concerns of all parties."

Other employers did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Workers covered under current contracts make $14.50 to $20 an hour, but have few benefits and little to no retirement savings, said the SEIU's Nammacher. He added that pandemic hospitalizations and sick leave hurt many frontline workers' savings.

Eva Lopez, a 30-year janitor who for two years has cleaned the Boston Scientific offices in Brooklyn Park for AmeriClean, said employers "gave us little pieces of paper saying we were essential workers and they called us heroes during the pandemic. When they needed us we were there. But now that we need them to step forward, they are only offering cents, not dollars."

She has no retirement savings and wants a pension and better pay so it's not so hard to pay for her and her husband's rent, car and gas bills each month.

"I am using my body up on this job," she said. "And I don't believe we are asking for anything complicated or difficult."