The union workers who clean the windows on downtown's skyscrapers as well as at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport constitute a small bargaining unit of just 40 or so.

However, that group, part of the 8,000-member Local 26 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), recently ended a 10-day strike with a tentative contract they hope will be an example around the country.

They negotiated a wage increase of about 25%, to $30.20 per hour, in the fourth year of the contract for a trade that starts at $17 an hour. And the contract services firms that employ the window washers agreed to establish a state-registered apprenticeship safety program.

"We got the most important thing: the apprenticeship program that will raise the standards of this industry," said Eric Crone, a veteran window washer and union steward. "We got fair wage increases ... fair enough to get a settlement."

Three companies and the union have been working informally for years on an apprentice program.

"In the last 15 years, three window cleaners have died in the metro area and it's an industry not much larger than 60 people working on high-rise buildings," said Greg Nammacher, president of SEIU Local 26. "One of our members was killed, Fidel Sanchez, working on the IDS Center [in 2007] when he fell through the glass of the Crystal Court. Since then, the union and the workers have tried to focus on safety.

"There have been no more deaths within union companies. Now we are taking a step beyond with a formal apprenticeship program and taking it to the state to be registered. That's happened nowhere else in the country other than New York City."

That would involve up to several weeks of class time that's part of on-the-job training for new employees, or apprentices, certified by the state, so it becomes part of industry standards, similar to other building trades.

The contract covers workers employed by three companies; Columbia Building Services, Final Touch and Apex North, which had already agreed to the main principles proposed by the workers, so their employees were not part of the 10-day strike.

Mike LeSage, owner of Columbia Building Services, said to be the largest of the three service firms, did not respond to phone inquiries last week about the tentative settlement.

The strike began Aug. 16 and involved roving picket lines in both downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul as well as at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Dozens of airport janitors honored the picket line, which increased pressure. Moreover, Crone said members of the public were sympathetic after learning that about half the cleaners caught COVID-19, after being pressed into service as sanitation workers in high-traffic areas downtown and at the airport.

About 50 local politicians came out in support of the union workers.

Crone, 30, has washed windows for 12 years, including six at Columbia.

"We did have to buy our own personal protective gear for COVID-19," he said. "We were cleaning inside at the airport. Walkways, interior windows and handrails. This was different work.

"There were multiple occasions where somebody tested positive. I had to quarantine twice and be tested more times than I count. A couple colleagues were bedridden for two or three weeks. The sickness was terrible. They had trouble walking and breathing. And we have guys in the in the field as old as 62."

The experienced steeled the union workers into a commitment to press during contract talks for a significant wage increase, as well as the formal apprenticeship.

"There would be more work coming to union companies because we would be the only ones creating certified journeymen," Crone said. "And the union employers would be able to get more bids rather than be undercut by sub-par nonunion contractors underbidding."

A journeyman glass cleaner making $26.20 an hour will make $30.20 an hour in 2025, under the contract. The glass cleaners note that they do similar work, using the same rigging as glazers, for example, who can make more than $40 an hour.

"On more than one occasion, I've had to rappel in the [sling chair] and cut out a piece of glass, while [the glazers] are on the inside and help them replace it. There's a wage gap for using the same equipment and risk."

The window workers were back on the job last Monday.