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"There's no future on $20 a day," says SEIU Local 5
Houston janitors on strike

By Mike Corwin | November 10, 2006 | Page 11

HOUSTON--Some 1,700 janitors here have been on strike for more than two weeks in a struggle for health care, full-time hours and an improvement in abysmally low pay.

The strikers, members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 5, are fighting for the 5,300 janitors who work in downtown office buildings and currently make an average wage of $5.30 an hour. That pay rate, combined with the cleaning companies' use of part-time shifts, means that the strike's slogan--"There's no future on $20 a day"--is no exaggeration of the janitors' plight.

SEIU members are striking five cleaning companies--ABM Janitorial Services, Janitors Services of Texas, OneSource Facility Services, GCA Services Group and Pritchard Industries Southwest--which so far have not budged an inch in negotiations over the union's demands.

The cleaning companies have issued a statement saying union demands are "extreme" and beyond what they can afford.

But the janitors aren't buying it. "'Extreme' is being asked to live on $20 a day," Ercilia Sandoval, a striking janitor suffering from breast cancer, wrote in a Houston Chronicle editorial.

The strikers are seeking an increase in pay to $8.50 an hour, which would bring them closer to parity with unionized janitors working for some of the same contractors in other cities. Janitors in LA earn an average hourly wage of $10.65, and in Chicago, SEIU janitors' pay averages $13.80 an hour.

While officially on strike against the cleaning companies, the union has been focusing on a pressure campaign against the major building owners, calling on them to pay cleaning companies more so that they can increase workers' pay. The campaign has focused on building owners like Hines Interests, which is worth $12.5 billion, and Chevron Corp., a giant company that made $14 billion in profits last year.

The strike, which was launched on October 23, has mobilized strikers and supporters in two big marches, one of which went to the posh Galleria shopping center. The union, which has a $1 million strike fund, has also garnered the support of civic and religious leaders in Houston.

On November 2, 12 supporters of the strike were arrested for blocking traffic in an act of civil disobedience. The strikers have also received important support from janitors in other cities.

In late October, SEIU set up picket lines at six office buildings in Chicago that are cleaned by ABM. Union janitors refused to cross the pickets. Patricia Cabral, a janitor at a downtown Chicago office building, told the Chicago Tribune, "They do the same [as] I do; they are Hispanic like me; they are in every way my people, and they have no future on $20 a day."

In a November 1 conference call, SEIU representatives pledged that union members would honor picket lines to be set up in New York, LA and Washington, D.C. That's the kind of solidarity that can win justice for the janitors.

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