Janitors’ struggle heats up

August 7, 2012

Michael Schwartz reports from Houston on the janitors' struggle for justice.

THE STRUGGLE of thousands of Houston janitors for a fair contract has escalated from a series of rolling one-day walkouts to a citywide strike since mid-July, with over 450 janitors at 18 buildings participating and hundreds more ready to join them.

The janitors, represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have been without a contract since the end of May and carried out targeted one-day walkouts in June. But they announced an indefinite strike on July 11 after several contractors stopped paying into the janitors' health care and welfare fund, in violation of labor law.

As a result, though the fight for a living wage remains a core issue of the strike, the walkout is officially an unfair labor practices strike. This gives workers a stronger legal footing for their action, since employers face greater restrictions on replacing workers in an unfair labor practices walkout.

The Houston janitors clean office buildings occupied by some of the richest corporations in the world, including ExxonMobil, JPMorgan Chase and Shell. Yet many of the 3,200 janitors of SEIU Local 1 in Houston earn around $9,000 a year, according to the union. In other cities, janitors represented by the union make over $10 an hour--in Houston, the hourly wage is $8.35.

Houston janitors and their supporters march in front of One Shell Plaza
Houston janitors and their supporters march in front of One Shell Plaza (Dave Einsel | SEIU)

"They're taking all the money home with them," Alice MacAfee, a janitor in Houston for 30 years, told the National Public Radio show Marketplace. "And we're not getting a cut of it."

To make matters worse, janitors say they have to race to get their work done in a six-hour shift, the longest allowed by any of the Houston contractors, according to Marketplace. The union says janitors in other cities have eight hours to do comparable work.

Reporting for In These Times, Josh Eidelson captured the reality for janitors in describing the lives of a husband and wife who are both participating in the strike:

Together, [Norma] Perales and her husband work three jobs to support their three children, ages 6 to 10. He works a nine-and-a-half-hour daytime shift in the shipping and receiving department of a furniture warehouse. Then both spouses work five-hour evening shifts in the same building for the contractor ABM Janitorial Services. The kids' grandmother watches them at night; Perales said her husband can spend time with them "pretty much only during the weekends."

And even with three jobs, Eidelson wrote, Norma and her husband struggle to pay the bills and the rent.

SEIU is asking for an hourly wage increase from $8.35 to $10 over the life of a three-year contract. That shouldn't be unaffordable to property owners in the strongest commercial real estate market in the country. But the cleaning contractors have been intransigent throughout the summer, sticking to their "last, best and final" offer of a $0.50 hourly raise over five years.

THE HOUSTON strike has become a national issue, with support actions taking place around the country. In late July, SEIU members in eight cities went on one-day solidarity strikes against several of the companies targeted in Houston. The union has also organized street protests, including civil disobedience, in almost 20 cities. As of early August, nearly 70 janitors and supporters had been arrested.

Demonstrations for the janitors are a regular sight in downtown Houston, with actions that have shut down intersections and, in one case, occupied a downtown building until protesters were forcibly removed by police. In the largest action so far, 28 people were arrested on August 1 after blocking off the biggest intersection of Houston's shopping district.

The protests on August 1 and 2 were called to coincide with negotiations getting underway again with cleaning contractors. The talks ended for the weekend with employers making no new concessions. More negotiations are slated for this week.

The response of Houston police to the strike has gone beyond simply arresting those deliberately taking part in civil disobedience actions. In certain cases, SEIU staffers uninvolved in the actions have been targeted for arrest.

At one of the support rallies, journalist Jesus Tapia, who was covering the demonstration for La Opinion newspaper, was arrested for "not walking on the sidewalk," according to police. Two Houston activists were separately pulled over and ticketed by cops for honking in support as they drove past picket lines.

In a particularly outrageous case, a Muslim SEIU staffer who was arrested in the August 1 action had her religious headscarf ripped off by the officer who frisked her. When she objected, the officer said she was just following procedure since the scarf might conceal a weapon. "If you want your religious headscarf, then you shouldn't protest," the cop said.

Despite the national solidarity for their struggle, Houston janitors continue to face difficult challenges. For one thing, Texas is a right-to-work state, meaning that employers at unionized businesses aren't obligated to join the union when they're hired. This and other restrictions on labor rights give the SEIU less leverage.

Until last week, the contractors were refusing to negotiate, and they have boasted in letters to their corporate clients that the strike is having minimal impact on their business--though the union says the contractors aren't telling the truth.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker issued a strongly worded statement calling on contractors to come to the negotiating table, and other Texas Democrats have voiced support for the strike. But a recent Washington Post opinion article pointed out that Barack Obama has been silent about the strike, despite its national profile.

SEIU has announced a moratorium on civil disobedience actions while negotiations continue, but it is continuing to fund a public relations campaign targeting the contractors and especially the multinational corporations that occupy the office buildings where the janitors are on strike.

One video distributed widely on the Internet features the song "Call Me Jamie"--a play on the pop mega-hit "Call Me Maybe" directed at Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, owner of the tallest building in Houston. Months ago, Dimon was confronted after testifying before Congress by a janitor who cleans the 75-story office tower, but doesn't receive a living wage.

The union has also started an ad campaign targeting owners of the buildings janitors clean for routinely evading property taxes in Houston, costing Houston schools and other services millions every year.

The janitors in Houston are used to facing long odds. They won union recognition in 2005, the first time SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign succeeded in a right-to-work state, and they doubled their income with a big wage hike and longer shifts after a 2006 strike.

Their struggle today deserves all the support that the labor movement can mobilize for them.

Alan Maass contributed to this article.

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