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.”
“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, [explains Bullard].”
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.”
“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.”
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.