For the past decade, workers in fast food, retail and other low-wage industries have been pushing back against the notion they are condemned to jobs with lousy pay, no benefits and poor working conditions.
In several communities, they have successfully organized for a $15 minimum wage and paid safe and sick time. On Thursday, they marked another victory, as workers who clean Target, Best Buy, Macy’s and other stores announced they have gained union representation.
The win comes after six years of rallies, lawsuits and strikes – and equally determined opposition from management. In the process, workers pressured large retailers like Target Corporation to agree to responsible contracting policies.
This week came the final step – winning the right to a voice on the job through Service Employees International Union Local 26. The victory makes the Twin Cities the first major metropolitan area in the country where the retail janitorial industry will be union.
“We’re happy and we’re proud that we’ve changed the industry,” said Maricela Flores, a retail janitor who spent countless hours in recent years organizing through a Twin Cities-based worker center, CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha/Center of Workers United in Struggle).
The workers, employed by subcontractors to clean major department and grocery stores, are largely immigrants and workers of color.
Some of the changes workers have won:
Through two federal class action lawsuits, retail janitors recovered $1.1 million in unpaid wages and damages.
They pressured contractors to raise wages by $2.50 an hour - the first raises in more than a decade of declining pay.
In 2014, they convinced Target Corporation to adopt a Responsible Contractor Policy for the contracted cleaning of their stores. This year, Best Buy, Macy’s and other retail giants made the same commitment.
Some 1,000 workers are employed in retail cleaning in the Twin Cities, CTUL said. More than 500 – employed by four contractors (Carlson Building Maintenance, Prestige Maintenance USA, IFS and Leones) – are now represented by a union.
Organizing will continue among other workers, but will be made easier by the standards set by the unionized janitorial workforces at Target, Best Buy, Macy’s, Cub Foods, Lunds & Byerly’s and Whole Foods.
From its inception, the movement to organize retail has been worker-led. Retail cleaners such as Flores – the mother of five – and Pascual Tapia Vega – a janitor at Target – went store-by-store to mobilize co-workers.
“We fought in the cold. We fought in the rain,” said Tapia Vega.
“What motivates me to fight is when I sit at the dinner table and look at the faces of my kids,” said Flores.