Houston janitors battle corporate power

July 6, 2012

Michael Schwartz looks at the stakes in the struggle of janitors in Houston.

HOUSTON JANITORS are carrying out a series of rolling strikes in their fight for a living wage.

After contract negotiations broke down in late May, 3,000 workers, members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1, voted unanimously June 5 to authorize a strike.

The average wage for a janitor in Houston is $8.35 an hour, much less than the average wage for janitors in poorer cities such as Cleveland and Detroit, where their counterparts earn more than $10 an hour.

This disparity exists even though Houston's commercial real estate market is the strongest in the nation. Janitors clean the buildings belonging to some of the world's most profitable companies, such as JPMorgan Chase and Shell, but they can't afford to get by on what they’re paid.

The struggle broke into the open May 31 when 11 janitors at Pritchard Industries went on strike. Pritchard fired the workers, and the companies broke off negotiations and began threatening other workers with termination. Since then, the janitors have targeted certain employers for action--including a one-day strike at Greenway Plaza the evening of June 5. That same day, janitors marched through the city's business district.

Members of Houston's Justice for Janitors campaign show their determination
Members of Houston's Justice for Janitors campaign show their determination

Strikers have been holding daily rallies downtown to draw attention not only to their struggle, but to advocate for all minimum-wage earners. At a June 14 rally, a mounted Houston police office intentionally knocked over a striking janitor with his horse, and then arrested another woman for jaywalking when she helped the striker off the ground.

Actor Danny Glover was among many celebrities and politicians to show support for the predominately immigrant strikers. As he told theHouston Chronicle:

On many levels, we're talking about an epidemic. We're talking about a situation in which men and women have been reduced to objects simply for profit. In their stories, I see some of the most passionate, incredible human beings who are willing to stand up against those obstacles that are placed there and begin to build a life. I'm moved by their courage.

ON JUNE 19, in Washington, D.C., after JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon testified in front of Congress, he was confronted by Adriana Vazquez, who cleans at the JPMorgan building in Houston. She asked, "Despite making billions last year, why do you deny the people cleaning your buildings a living wage?" Dimon's response: "Call my office."

What you can do

Find out more about the Houston janitors’ struggle and what you can do to support it at the SEIU Local 1 website.

Hernan Trujillo, the janitor who was knocked over by the police horse, talked about the importance of this fight:

Even when we have this contract with this cleaning companies, we are still mistreated, we still suffer threats, intimidation and harassment. We refuse to keep this sickening environment in our workplaces. Our job is a decent job that will always be needed. We still carry the stigma of being uneducated, rude or thieves. We are honest and decent people trying to make our living, but we cannot do it without a living wage that will allow us to provide what our families deserve…

Fortunately, we are not alone. We have so many allies that support our cause. Not just for the janitors, but for every worker in this city. And together, we are going to do whatever it takes to win a fair contract that provides a living wage. In that way, [we] will improve the lives of so many families. We are not going to stop until the dream becomes a reality.

The battle for Houston janitors began in 2006, when, after a month-long strike, workers won union representation and doubled their income through a wage raise and longer shifts. It was the first time the SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign had won an organizing victory in a so-called right-to-work state, where laws restrict labor unions' ability to obtain a collective bargaining agreement.

Since then, however, the rising cost of living and management's insistence on short shifts have eaten away at those gains. Many workers make only about $9,000 per year, according to the SEIU.

That's why this new struggle for Houston janitors is so important. It's a fight for all working people who are tired of seeing their standard of living decline while corporations hoard profits.

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