(MintPress) – Negotiators for SEIU Local 26, a union representing 6,000 janitors and security guards, celebrated a major victory as they reached agreements on new contracts last week that took more than five months of negotiations. The end result? Securing higher pay and improved health benefits for Minnesota families. The $1.20 per hour increase will help pump an estimated $48 million into local communities and likely will bolster union strength regionally, currently at a 100-year low nationwide.
Currently, 11.3 percent of the workforce is represented by a union, largely due to the proliferation of right-to-work legislation limiting the collective bargaining power of unions in 24 states.
“We started negotiations back in November. They were going nowhere. The employers were dragging their feet, only offering one day a month to negotiate. After workers authorized a strike, it really showed the employers that the workers were serious about getting a fair contract,” said Kate Brickman, an SEIU Local 26 spokesperson, in a statement to Mint Press News.
Workers voted to authorize a strike last month. For union representatives, the strike was a considered a last resort option when ongoing talks broke down.
“As always, a strike is the last resort. We hope for the best, but we have to prepare for the worst,” said Javier Morillo, president of SEIU 26 to Mint Press News last month.
SEIU Local 26 security officers spent Wednesday Feb. 27 on the streets in a one-day strike, a move that brought employers back to the bargaining table the following morning. After a “marathon” bargaining session, security officers were able to secure a contract with many of the same standards won by 4,000 SEIU Local 26 janitors last month.
SEIU workers that clean and protect corporate buildings throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul are employed by major multibillion dollar corporations including Target, Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank. Before the new contract, many of these janitors and security guards earned the state minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
The new contract helps increase wages an average of $1.20 over three years, important increases for workers living near the poverty line. Workers also received improved health care benefits as part of the contract.
“The co-pay covering children decreased as part of the deal. They also got lower out-of-pocket costs and an array of things to improve the health coverage,” Brickman said.
“We all got an additional sick day. That is important because many workers don’t have any days off of work,” Brickman said.
A new contract improves job security and guarantees full time work after employers threatened to move many positions to part-time work. According to Brickman, employers were proposing to turn “at least 1,000 positions” into part-time work, allowing employers to reduce health care benefits.
Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank and Target Corp., all multibillion dollar corporations, have seen profits and CEO salaries increase exponentially, even during the immediate years after the 2008 economic crisis that marked the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Target Corp. CEO Gregg Steinhafel earned $23.9 million in 2010, while the average Target cashier earned just $8.05 per hour. For union workers and labor advocates, the growing gap in salaries between the average employee and top management will be difficult to close given the diminished bargaining strength of unions.
A victory amid declining union strength
According to the AFL-CIO, an organization representing 57 unions and 12 million workers, chief executives at some of the nation’s largest companies earned an average of $12.9 million in total pay last year — 380 times more than a typical American worker.
“All employees create value. CEO pay levels should be more in line with the rest of the company’s employee pay structure,” said Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president. “CEOs should be paid as a member of a team, not as a superstar.”
CEO salaries increased an average of 14 percent in 2011 while minimum wage workers saw flat growth in their incomes.
President Obama has proposed increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $9, a step that would help millions of low-wage workers. Labor experts believe that if approved, this increase would still leave millions behind in poverty.
If Washington raised the minimum wage to keep up with the cost of living, inflation and increases in worker productivity, the minimum wage employees would receive $16.50 per hour in 2013 dollars. A $9 per hour minimum wage would still leave 40 percent of low-wage workers earning less than the 1968 minimum wage based upon the purchasing power of the dollar.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, collective bargaining has helped secure higher wages for the average American worker when legislators have been unwilling to make these changes.
The union wage premium — the percentage-higher wage earned by those covered by a collective bargaining contract — is 13.6 percent overall 17.3 percent for men and 9.1 percent for women.
Statistically, unionized workers are 28.2 percent more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance and 53.9 percent more likely to have employer-provided pensions.
“Over the years, the janitors and security guards have been able to negotiate better and better contracts. They have been able to continually move these workers out of poverty over time,” Brickman said.