The majority of the city's private-sector cleaners could be setting up picket lines as soon as next week after workers from all the companies at the negotiation table overwhelmingly approved a strike mandate.

"A work stoppage is not what we want," said Lyne Giard, a member of the Service Employees International Union Local 2 and part of the bargaining committee.

"What we want is a contract that will provide a pathway out of poverty for cleaners in Ottawa, and health benefits for our families. But our employers don't seem to agree, so we're left with little choice but to consider going out on strike."

'They've had enough, they're ready to be seen'

A possible strike could have a major impact on the city's federally owned buildings — close to one-third of cleaners in Ottawa work in government buildings, said Diego Mendez, communications coordinator of SEIU Local 2. 

The federal government contracts the cleaning work out to private companies.

"As far as conditions go, most people are working two, sometimes three jobs just to make ends meet because the pay is not good enough, there's no benefits and Employee Standards Act violations are rampant," Mendez told Ottawa Morning in June.

Most cleaners make $11.50 per hour, Mendez said. The union is asking for $15 per hour and medical benefits.

"Is a fair wage for a worker that much to ask?" he said. 

"People come in the next day and think the fairy godmother came in and waved the wand and everything got clean. And that's not the way it works. [Cleaners] absolutely do feel invisible. And they've had enough, they're ready to be seen."

Employers and union are back at the bargaining table this Thursday. 

SEIU said if the cleaners are unable to make progress at negotiations, second-round voting at work locations for individual building walkouts will begin.