Black janitorial workers claim discrimination


A local janitorial contractor was recently charged with racially discriminatory hiring and pay practices against Blacks and African immigrants.

American Building Maintenance (ABM) Janitorial Services hired about 150 workers of color in October, but according to charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, these workers were paid less than other ABM workers and, in some cases, were treated differently, such as being given different colored work uniforms to wear than other staff even though they were doing the same job.

These recent problems with ABM are nothing new, claims Harrison Bullard, president of the Minnesota Chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) African American caucus. “We have problems with all the companies we work with,” he says.

A security worker in downtown Minneapolis, Bullard has been an active member of SEIU Local 26 for six years, president of the local’s Black caucus for two years, and a member of the Local 26 executive board for five years. The union represents over 5,000 janitors, security officers and window cleaners in the Twin Cities; Bullard believes over two-thirds of these workers are Black. “We also just picked up laundry workers,” he adds.

On the alleged discrimination by ABM, Bullard says, “One, it’s just an injustice, period. You bring them in and you don’t pay them [equitably].

You are creating a hostile work environment for these people. By giving them different uniforms, you are targeting them and saying they are not as qualified as this person, or not as worthy as this person.”

The often low-paying jobs that SEIU members have are fast becoming even more important today for a variety of reasons, claims Bullard. “You got a wide range of ages, with the middle-of-the-road [being] about 35.

“It used to be a time when you would say this would be [a] part-time job. Now, you are finding older individuals who retired from somewhere else having to work. Then you are finding young people who can’t find anything else. This is where they are.”

Depending on the occupation, the union often is confronted with different concerns, explains Bullard. “The employer doesn’t want us [the union] there because once we’re in, and we start exposing things to the worker, the employer doesn’t like that because he has to spend more money and has got to do the proper thing.

“In janitorial, instead of having two people work the job, [the employers] just have one and work the individual to death. In security, we’ve found that it’s always on what the client says and never the company. For window washers, safety always is a big issue, and training is a big issue for a job like that.”

Fear of involvement in union activities also can be problematic, Bullard notes. He recalls an email he recently received from a local worker “letting me know that he appreciates what the union is doing because we are changing people’s lives. But can I get you to come to a rally, or do something other than run home at the end of the day?

“They’re afraid,” admits Bullard of many Black workers. “I have some people who have been [in the union] for a while, and I have some people who just started.

They hear what I’m telling them. I try to explain to them what we have done thus far, but they are saying, ‘I don’t want to do anything right now.’ For most of them, they have to have their backs up against the wall.”

Bullard emphasizes the advantages of being a member of SEIU Local 26. “We are trying to move from a poverty wage to a living wage,” he points out. “We try to provide those things that people need in life, like health care and life insurance. At the end of the day, it’s about making sure these people have an opportunity to survive.”

SEIU’s membership is diverse, “but the companies will take that diversity and use it to divide us,” says Bullard. “We want to make sure that the union doesn’t change; our union stays true to what it is supposed to do for everybody. Not just [for] Black people, but for everybody.

“You want to be a Muslim, fine. You’re Hispanic and you want to speak Spanish and you want to live your lifestyle like that, that’s fine. You shouldn’t have to change to do that.”

Companies won’t stop trying to find ways to divide SEIU members, says Bullard.

“As they continue to divide us, we continue to stay divided,” he points out.

“So we need to come together – Black, White, Latino, whatever – and stay as diverse as we need to be to be our own culture. But at the same time, we need to be as one.”

His fellow union members regularly deal with racism, continues Bullard.

“It’s changed, but it hasn’t left – it always seems to pop out every so often. [The ABM issue] is a prime example of it.”

Currently, more than 4,000 janitors from across the Twin Cities are working without a contract after an agreement with their employers expired January 8.

According to SEIU Local 26 officials, janitorial companies have proposed to cut wages for janitors working in suburban areas by nearly $5 per hour or more while eliminating fulltime jobs in both the downtowns and the suburbs and imposing an unrealistic freeze on their share of health insurance premiums for three years.

The workers have set a January 23 deadline for employers to sit and negotiate. “We stand ready and willing to bargain a fair contract whenever the cleaning contractors are ready to get serious about real solutions,” said SEIU Local 26 President Javier Morillo-Alicea in a written statement.

Negotiating with these companies will be tough, especially in these economically tough times, says Bullard. “They [the employers] say they don’t have money, but I haven’t seen any CEO lose their homes. You have to get them agitated for them to understand what really going on.”

As a result, Bullard predicts, “It’s going to be hard” to reach a mutual agreement.

Bullard says that even if the economy improves, such issues won’t totally disappear. “I think if we can have more participation between our workers and the community in getting these types [of problems] resolved, it will be a big impact overall,” he concludes.

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