The prospect of overflowing trash cans and dirty floors in downtown Seattle office buildings was averted as marathon contract negotiations between unionized janitors and cleaning contractors led to a tentative settlement reached in the early morning hours of Tuesday, July 8. Janitors had voted to authorize a strike as early as July 9 if negotiations failed.

The current janitorial contract expired June 30, and weeks of intensive negotiations had failed to achieve a deal. The main sticking point in negotiations was health care coverage, as insurance costs have skyrocketed in recent years, rising between 10 and 15 percent annually. The janitors, represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 6, demanded that contractors maintain current health benefits for union members; the janitorial service companies argued they cannot bear the full burden of rising costs, and initially offered to cover most but not all of the increased expenses.

The details of the final settlement were not released, pending union ratification, though SEIU spokesperson Dawn Le said the union was pleased with its terms. "We were able to save health care," she said. The union bargaining committee is recommending approval of the new three-year contract, and ratification is expected to be a formality.

Prior to the settlement, Le had said it would cost 52 cents more per hour to maintain coverage for each janitor. Last week, employers had offered to cover 39 cents of that the first year, and 30 cents per hour for the subsequent two years of the three-year deal. The union rejected the offer, prompting the strike authorization vote.

In the days leading up to the settlement, janitors had expressed concern about having to bear some of their health care costs. "Almost all the janitors live paycheck to paycheck," even with health care costs covered, said Gordon Mumford, a janitor for 19 years who works at Key Tower.

Nationally, SEIU has been engaged in an aggressive "Justice for Janitors" campaign, which has led to strikes in several cities. Last November 9, Boston janitors ended a bitter 23-day strike after federal mediators and city leaders intervened. In Sacramento, janitors ended a one-week strike in June after winning a contract that increased wages.

Representatives of two of Seattle's larger janitorial contracting companies, Metropolitan Building Maintenance and Dependable Building Maintenance, were unavailable for comment.