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Chicago janitors authorize strike as contract deadline nears

Updated: May 5, 2012 8:12AM

A contract covering more than 13,000 janitors who clean downtown Chicago office buildings and other sites is set to expire Sunday, and workers have authorized their union leaders to call a strike if an agreement isn’t reached.

Service Employees International Union Local 1 is negotiating with Building Owners and Managers Association Chicago, which is representing roughly 230 building owners predominantly in downtown Chicago. The union also is holding separate talks with a group of suburban contractors.

The union represents about 4,000 janitors at downtown commercial buildings, 3,000 in suburban office buildings, 2,000 in public schools and city of Chicago facilities and about 3,500 in malls, universities and other buildings.

“The big issues are funding (health) insurance enough and wages,” said Tom Balanoff, SEIU Local 1 President. “BOMA has made progress. We have made progress towards insurance, but we’re not there yet. On wages, we’re far apart.”

The union has made much less progress in talks with suburban contractors, he said.

Michael Cornicelli, executive vice president of BOMA Chicago, declined to discuss issues in the negotiations, but said he is “cautiously optimistic” an agreement will be reached before the contract expires.

Union workers presently make $15.25 an hour, Balanoff said. He would not specify what wage increase the union is seeking, but said, “What our members are facing are what most working people are facing, from … janitors to police to whatever. Between what has happened with the economy, if they had homes they have no value left in them. If they’re renting, that’s skyrocketing. We know what’s happening to grocery prices, and we all buy gas. So we’re really at a point that we need to get a decent wage increase to be able to start turning our lives around.”

Without such an increase, he contended workers will be pushed into poverty. The union says the annual income of the janitors is $20,000 below the cost of living for a family in Chicago.

Negotiations began March 7, and more talks are scheduled for Friday.

“We certainly would like to have things settled but if we don’t, we had a very resounding vote of support from our members to strike if necessary,” Balanoff said.

The union has typically reached agreement without striking. But in 2000, workers staged a strike that lasted for two weeks in the suburbs and one-day in downtown Chicago.

SEIU Local 1 members voted Saturday to grant strike authorization to union leaders.

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