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SEIU strike major step forward for organized labor in the South
Victory for Houston janitors

By Mike Corwin | December 1, 2006 | Page 11

HOUSTON--Janitors claimed victory here after a four-week strike in a battle that was widely regarded as a test for organized labor in the low-wage, nonunion South.

The strikers, members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 5, won a contract with improvements in wages, working hours and benefits for more than 5,300 janitors who work mainly in downtown office buildings. Previously, the workers--many of whom are new immigrants from Mexico and Central America--had been taking home a pitiful $20 a day as a result of part-time shifts and near-minimum wages.

The three-year contract, which begins January 1, provides a raise to $6.25 an hour in the first year, $1 more at the beginning of 2008, and another 50-cent raise in 2009. At the beginning of 2009, shifts will extend from four to six hours. By the third year of the contract, the increases in wages and working hours will result in a doubling of the janitors' present income.

The contract also provides for a grievance procedure, paid holidays and vacations--all first-time benefits for the janitors. Another new benefit: at the beginning of 2009, janitors will be offered health insurance at a cost of $20 a month or $175 a month for family coverage.

The settlement came November 20, after a weekend of negotiations between the union and representatives of five cleaning companies: ABM, OneSource, GCA, Sanitors, and Pritchard. After a ratification vote that night, the janitors gathered for a victory rally and celebration. At the rally, chants broke out of "¡Sí se pudo!"--Yes, we did it!

Only a third of the Houston janitors signed up by SEIU actually walked off the job, as the centerpiece of SEIU's strategy was a pressure campaign directed at the building owners who contract with the cleaning companies.

SEIU set up picket lines in other cities at buildings that contract with the cleaning companies in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and several smaller cities. In the final week of the strike, the union escalated a campaign of civil disobedience in Houston carried out by the "Freedom Flyers"--SEIU janitors from other cities.

On November 16, Houston mounted police charged a group of 50 protesters peacefully occupying a street intersection in downtown Houston. Bail was originally set at the outrageous amount of $888,888 for each of those arrested, although it was eventually reduced to $1,000.

While in jail, janitors and activists were subject to mistreatment. But workers refused to be intimidated.

SEIU now has an aggressive plan to organize the smaller cleaning companies and prepare for future battles.

Mercedes Herrera, a Houston janitor for ABM, told the Houston Chronicle that while she was happy with the terms of the settlement, the biggest thrill was how the experience changed her life. "I really appreciated the support of everyone and how everyone stayed together," said Herrera. "We'll be ready in three years when it's time to renew the contract. This is the first victory."

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