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Union Eyes ‘Green’ Cleaning

In its contract negotiations with Save Mart Supermarkets and four service contractors employed by Safeway, a janitors union in Northern California is seeking not only better wages and health care benefits, but also something fairly new to such negotiations green cleaning standards, including safer cleaning products. Though little research has been done on the safety of cleaning chemicals

OAKLAND, Calif. — In its contract negotiations with Save Mart Supermarkets and four service contractors employed by Safeway, a janitors union in Northern California is seeking not only better wages and health care benefits, but also something fairly new to such negotiations — green cleaning standards, including safer cleaning products.

Though little research has been done on the safety of cleaning chemicals in supermarkets, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877 cites an internal survey showing that conventional cleaning products used by the supermarket janitors have caused them to suffer from a variety of ailments, including skin irritations, respiratory difficulties and possible long-term health problems.

The union has also pointed out that some of the cleaning chemicals, particularly floor strippers, contain harmful volatile organic compounds (VOC) that vaporize and enter the air stream, potentially harming employees and shoppers, and settling on food products such as produce.

The union specifically cites potentially harmful chemicals such as monoethanolamine (MEA) and zinc being present in floor stripper products used by the janitors.

In lieu of those cleaners, the union has proposed that employers commit to the use of “environmentally friendly chemicals” certified by Green Seal, a non-profit group that provides an environmental imprimatur to hundreds of products and services.

“Green cleaning is one of the most important things we're fighting for,” said Rachele Huennekens, Northern California communications specialist for the SEIU United Service Workers West, which includes Local 1877 as well as other service worker union groups. The union's latest contracts, covering 650 supermarket janitors — 200 working at Save Mart, 450 at Safeway — expired on Oct. 31, 2009.

Green cleaning “is a significant issue for us across the U.S.,” said Andrea Dehlendorf, co-director, property services division, SEIU International, pointing out that it is part of negotiations currently taking place for Minneapolis office building janitors. But the Local 1877 effort is the first time green cleaning has come up in negotiations on behalf of supermarket janitors, she added.

Though green cleaning standards represent a “new frontier” for supermarkets, they have been adopted by hospitals, schools and prisons, Huennekens said. “It's timely also because consumers are turning to green cleaning in their homes,” she said, pointing out that Safeway markets its own line of Bright Green eco-friendly cleaning products.

Thus far, the Safeway-hired cleaning contractors are opposed to the green cleaning proposals, according to SEIU Local 1877, which also said that Safeway itself has refused “to engage [the janitors] on this issue.” Save Mart is “waffling on the proposals,” said Huennekens. “We're hopeful of convincing them.”

On Jan. 21, about 50 janitors staged demonstrations outside two Safeway stores here, calling on Safeway's janitorial contractors to implement green cleaning standards. The janitors “marched, chanted, distributed face masks and leaflets to customers, and talked to them about the dangers of conventional cleaning chemicals,” said Huennekens.

“The chemicals we use to clean the Safeway stores are very strong, and I'm afraid they are hurting my health and getting on the food from the air,” said Preciliano Gonzaga, a janitor at one of the picketed Safeway stores, in a statement released by the SEIU Local 1877.

In an email response, Teena Massingill, a spokeswoman for Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway, said, “SEIU is trying to use secondary pressure on the customer, rather than the employer, in their current contract negotiations with the janitorial companies.” Massingill was quoted in the Contra Costa Times in late December as saying that the janitors are not supermarket employees and that questions about them should be directed to their employers, including ABM Janitorial Services, New York.

Alicia Rockwell, director of public affairs and communications for Save Mart, Modesto, Calif., declined to comment because “the status of negotiations is still very active.” Rick Silva, lead negotiator for Save Mart, did not respond to a request for comment.

The union's concerns about the safety of cleaning chemicals originally surfaced last year in Southern California during negotiations with three major chains there — Kroger-owned Ralphs, Safeway-owned Vons and Supervalu-owned Albertsons — along with Stater Bros., Gelson's and Super A Foods. Janitors staged rallies at four Albertsons stores last April. The contract ultimately negotiated with those retailers did not include a green cleaning provision, said Huennekens.

GLOVES AND MASKS

As part of its call for green cleaning standards, SEIU is also calling for the employers to provide safety gloves to employees as well as the option to use face masks and/or goggles. The union proposal also asks that employers provide training to employees on the use, mixing and storage of cleaning chemicals, and that employer representatives and employees establish a Worker Safety Committee. In addition, the union has requested — but not yet received — worker injury and illness logs required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Green cleaning standards “seem like they would be beneficial to all parties and easy to do,” said Huennekens. “Green Seal makes it easy to see what's certified.” Green cleaning products are not more expensive than conventional brands, she said.

ABM asserted that it is already meeting some of the union's requests. In a December statement concerning the contract negotiations, ABM said, “Beyond meeting local, state and federal standards, the company's safety program provides employees with personal protective equipment (such as gloves, safety glasses and no-slip shoes) and includes a mandatory monthly safety information session for all employees. Chemical safety information is posted at each store in English and Spanish.”

While it did not refer to cleaning products in its statement, on its website ABM describes its “Green Care” program that includes green cleaning and the use of “eco-friendly processes and products.” In a separate document, ABM said its Green Care program uses Green Seal-certified cleaning chemicals.

The ABM statement went on to say that employees and the SEIU have the right to file a grievance if there was a legitimate safety concern but “that has not happened.” In addition, it said, “there are no claims filed by ABM Janitorial Services employees relating to unsafe chemicals under the collective bargaining agreement.”

Huennekens and Eric Berman, a spokesman for ABM, were at odds over whether the SEIU would have been able to file a grievance over the safety of the cleaning products. Huennekens said the union's hands were tied because there has been no green cleaning standards provision in the contracts. But Berman contended that “the agreement includes safety provisions under which such grievances could have been filed.”

However, Huennekens, in response, said that in the current contract the only health and safety language pertains to providing “safety gloves as needed” to employees. “It is patently false to say that our union could file grievances over other, unrelated safety issues such as unsafe chemicals or lack of training,” she said.

Berman also noted that “no medical claims or workers' compensation claims have been submitted relative to these products or to this issue.” Huennekens said that workers' compensation claims would be a possibility if new green cleaning standards are not placed in the next contract. She added that workers have sought medical attention for reactions to cleaning chemicals, and that has been covered by health insurance.

In addition to ABM, Safeway's janitors are employed by three other services, identified by SEIU as Premier Floor Care, Sunol, Calif.; Crystal Cleaning Service, San Leandro, Calif.; and Alliance Maintenance Solutions (AMS), Gardnerville, Nev. Jim Beard, cited by SEIU as lead negotiator for the Safeway janitorial contractors, did not respond to a request for comment.

HEALTH SURVEY

To buttress its argument that conventional cleaning fluids are harmful to janitors, SEIU Local 1877 surveyed its members about the health effects they were experiencing. More than 90% reported chronic headaches at work, especially when using floor strippers and waxes, and 75% said they suffered from “itchy hands, peeling skin, trouble breathing and watery or burning eyes when using these chemicals,” according to a union statement.

Moreover, the survey results indicated that 66% of the janitors said they had never received any type of safety equipment or training in the mixing or use of cleaning chemicals, while half said they were instructed to regularly use the chemicals in enclosed areas of the store.

Huennekens noted that supermarket janitors, who typically work at night individually or in pairs at stores, receive less supervision than janitorial staffs at building complexes, and are therefore more vulnerable to health and safety issues.

In addition to the green cleaning provision, the union is also seeking improved wages and the preservation of current health care benefits, claiming that both groups of employers are attempting to reduce wages, health care and pension benefits.

In its December statement, ABM countered that it has “put forward a very strong proposal to include these workers in the same agreement that the other SEIU Local 1877 janitors overwhelmingly approved just last year.” But Huennekens said the previous agreement applied to building service workers and was not applicable to the current negotiations.

Huennekens said the union and the employers are “still far apart” on wages and benefits and still need to make “significant progress” on health and safety issues.