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A Clean Fight
Unionized janitors go all-in against a prominent developer.

Photo by John-david Morgan

Every night in Milwaukee, crews of janitors file inconspicuously into the buildings that stripe the city’s skyline to scrub the toilets, vacuum the floors and empty the trash cans used by white-collar employees during the day. The latter make far more in salary than the cleaning-crew workers do in hourly wages, but for several years, a stubbornly outspoken labor union, Service Employees International Union Local 1, has fought a painstaking battle to narrow the gap.

Then in late 2011, noted Milwaukee real estate owner and developer Stewart Wangard canceled a contract with a union cleaning firm at one of his Downtown buildings, 875 E. Wisconsin Ave. It’s home to such businesses as Ernst & Young, Roundy’s Supermarkets and investment management firm Artisan Partners.

Wangard immediately became a lightning rod for aggressive tactics by the union. The maneuvers went as far as delaying a new Wangard project in the Park East area on two separate occasions: First, when the $22 million apartment development (with ground-floor retail) went before the County Board, and again when Wangard asked the Milwaukee Redevelopment Authority for a $1 million loan to fund cleanup of the site. Union officials took their complaints about Wangard to both meetings, rattling public officials who put off approval to hear out SEIU leaders, including Peter Hanrahan, the local’s vice president.

“By giving him this loan, the city would be giving the green light that you can screw over the janitors and still get money,” Hanrahan says from the union’s Spartan Downtown office. Wangard has the financial wherewithal, the union leader says, to fund the cleanup with his own money. “This is pure greed.”

Before the Redevelopment Authority reconvened in September, Hanrahan and the union pulled out all the stops. Besides rallies and informational pickets, the union was behind phone calls to about 35,000 registered voters, urging them to call Mayor Tom Barrett’s office in protest.

“We want responsible building owners in Downtown Milwaukee. We want owners that understand that you have to have a decent wage,” Hanrahan says a few days before the pivotal meeting. “The city is rewarding an irresponsible building owner.”

In all, the union represents about 1,000 service workers, primarily janitors who clean Downtown office buildings, Miller Park and facilities that are part of the Wisconsin Center District. Cleaning contractors that sign on with the union are obligated to maintain certain wage and benefit standards. Experienced janitors covered by the union are paid about $11.10 per hour and receive employer-paid health insurance.

Downtown buildings with unionized cleaning crews include the U.S. Bank Center, the Chase Tower, Plaza East and the MGIC headquarters. For the union of janitors, Wangard breaking rank represented a serious threat. Not only had a dozen members lost their jobs, but their replacements made significantly less per hour and enjoyed no health insurance.

“If we don’t respond to what has happened there,” Hanrahan says, “other building owners will do the same, and we’ll lose all of what we fought so hard for.”

Come September, the Redevelopment Authority met as planned, but to the surprise of many, no one spoke in opposition to the loan. Word began to trickle out that Wangard had reached an accord of sorts with the union, maybe a deal brokered by Barrett. The loan sailed through to passage, and after the meeting, an obviously relieved Wangard declined to reveal much about the discussions with SEIU leaders. At the time, he said no formal agreement had been reached.

“We’re going to continue to talk,” he said. Wangard has insisted his decision to drop the union cleaning firm was due to “performance issues.”

Later, he said he’d reached a “mutual agreement” with the union.

“We can’t clean empty buildings,” says Hanrahan, who has now taken a quieter stance. “We want to be partners with responsible building owners.”

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