PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday July 9th, 2015, 3:26pm

Chicago Window Washers Rally For A New Contract (VIDEO)

Unionized window washers in Chicago took their campaign for a fair contract to the Magnificent Mile late Wednesday afternoon for a march and rally. Progress Illinois was there for the event.

More than 100 Chicago window washers and their supporters marched along the Magnificent Mile late Wednesday afternoon and rallied outside Water Tower Place as part of their campaign for a fair labor contract.

At the demonstration, the window washers chanted, "No contract! No peace!" They waved yellow flags that read: "Good Jobs. Strong Communities."

The unionized window washers -- who are represented by SEIU* Local 1 and clean downtown buildings such as the John Hancock Center and Water Tower Place -- want better pay and health care benefits.

SEIU Local 1 represents 235 Chicago window washers, who are currently working under an extension of the union's labor agreement with eight contractors. Corporate Cleaning Services is the largest employer among the eight contractors bargaining as a group.

The three-year labor contract expired on June 30, but it has been extended through July 15. Union officials say the window cleaners, who took a strike authorization vote last month, are prepared to walk off the job if a new contract is not settled before the extension expires. According to union representatives, the next negotiation sessions are set to take place Tuesday and Wednesday.

"They need to come with something serious to the table so that we could all go home and be happy and be able to provide for our families," said window washer Cruz Guzman, 24.

Currently, the window washers earn hourly wages between $11 and $17.65, and they contribute 40 percent toward their health insurance premiums, according to union officials. SEIU Local 1 spokeswoman Izabela Miltko said the window cleaners have not received a pay raise in 10 years, and only about half of them can afford the health insurance offered through their employers.

In addition to their call for more affordable health insurance, the window washers are demanding that their pay be brought in line with New York and Minneapolis window washers. Those workers, according to the union, have hourly wages of at least $20 and their employers cover health insurance premiums entirely.

Here's more from the rally, including comments from Guzman and Chicago Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who stood in solidarity with the window washers:

The window washers also want an end to the commission-based compensation system used by Corporate Cleaning Services.

Under the compensation system, points are assigned to each building based on how difficult the job is plus the estimated time needed to complete it. If 100 points were assigned to a building, for example, a worker would be allotted 100 hours for the job, and they would get paid their union rate per point, Miltko explained.

"So whether it takes you longer [than 100 hours] or not, they only pay you for that 100 hours," she said.

Essentially, if window washers run out of points, they don't get paid for the extra time needed to finish the specific job. Guzman, who works for Corporate Cleaning Services, said window washers do not run out of points in most cases. Still, they want to be "fairly compensated so when we go to work, we don't have to worry about if we're going to be able to finish or not," he said.

Workers also have safety concerns as it relates to the commission system.

"We're compromising our safety by having to run around" to get the job done faster, Guzman said, adding that older workers are also put at an unfair disadvantage if they can't work as quickly as their younger counterparts.

"It's not fair for them to make less money because they can't produce the same as when they were younger," Guzman said.

Neal Zucker, president and CEO of Corporate Cleaning Services, defended the commission-based system in a statement. He said Corporate Cleaning Services window washers "are the highest-paid workers in the industry."

"Our compensation system rewards them for completing work on time and in a safe manner," he said. "That results in an effective pay rate of $29.42 an hour. Their seasonal work results in an average salary of $54,000, with many earning more than $85,000."

Zucker also noted that under the labor contract, window washers have three opportunities per year to switch from the commission system to hourly pay. That option became available to window washers most recently in May, but all workers declined the offer, Zucker said.

"We have always believed in treating our workers fairly and ensuring they are well compensated for the dangerous work they do," Zucker said. "They are currently paid more than union scale and SEIU has never before objected to our compensation system, nor have our employees ever filed grievances over these past practices. We have always bargained in good faith and will continue to do so, but we have no interest in negotiating the terms of our next agreement through the media."

Asked why he and other window washers haven't opted out of the commission system, Guzman explained: "As soon as you come to Corporate Cleaning, you're heavily encouraged to be on the commission, so a lot of guys haven't [opted out] in fear of retaliation."

Guzman also said many workers had been unaware until more recently that they had such an option.

Wednesday's protest was the second demonstration by the window washers and their supporters in over a week. A day before their contract initially expired on June 30, the workers demonstrated outside the Trump Tower, another skyscraper they clean.

*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.

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