400 Houston janitors are continuing their strike against contractors for whom they clean the offices of some the wealthiest corporations in the world, but earn less than half the poverty level.
They belong to the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 150,000 janitors in the United States.
They’ve been on strike since last week after their contract expired on May 31st. Spokesperson Paloma Martinez says they’ve asked for a raise from $8.35 an hour to $10 an hour.
‘Their last offer was a .50¢ raise in 5 years. So, janitors wouldn’t even be at $9.00 an hour in 2017.
For people who are making a poverty wage already, that’s not gonna do anything to help our community. The janitors are really looking to get to about $10.00 an hour in three years.
Something that’s closer to a living wage, something that’s actually going to contribute to the city.’
Paloma says the janitors earn less than the poverty level of $22,000 for a family of four.
‘Right now, Houston janitors are appealing to the business community in Houston saying, “You can do the right thing by Houston families. You can create middle class jobs that are really gonna move us all forward together.
‘“We need an economy that’s gonna work for everybody, not just the very top”. And that’s what the janitors are telling the building owners in this town, and the business community, “You can do right. Help us help Houston”.’
Margie Harris practices employment law in Houston. She says the conflict between janitors and contractors is legitimate.
‘Not only do they get little thanks for their work in keeping these offices habitable and presentable from a professional viewpoint, but then they don’t get paid a decent wage. I just don’t understand how our economy can justify keeping people who are working full-time, and sometimes working more than one job, at below poverty level.’
She says janitors are protected by being in a union, because the National Labor Relations Act encourages people to unionise, and discourages employers from retaliating against them if they do form a union.
‘I’ve seen a lot of anti-union messages put out by corporations over the course of years, and what they fail to reveal is that, when you act with someone, standing up and saying this is not right or this is not fair, you stand a much better chance of being listened to. There is safety in numbers.’
A call to one of the largest cleaning contractors in Houston, Pritchard Industries, was not returned. Meanwhile, support for the strike will spread this week to major cities across the country in solidarity.
Janitors in Minneapolis picketed on Tuesday in support of the week-long, citywide strike by janitors in Houston. Picketing also is planned in seven other cities.
In Minneapolis, the action took place from 4 to 6 pm at the US Bank building, 8th St. and Nicollet Ave.
Service Employees International Union Local 26, which coordinated the event, asked supporters to sign up via its Facebook page.
Last week, hundreds of Houston janitors represented by SEIU Local 1 walked off the job in the first city-wide janitors’ strike since 2006. Workers are concerned about attempts to undercut their health care coverage, the union said.
‘Three contractors – Pritchard, Aztec and Eurest – have stopped making contributions to the workers’ health and welfare fund,’ Local 1 said.
‘Meanwhile, two others – GCA and ISS – have stopped withholding worker contributions to the fund, a potential indication that they too plan on not contributing to the health and welfare fund.
‘The net result of this activity has been a sense of panic among the workers that their healthcare coverage is in peril.
‘This morning, SEIU Local 1 filed unfair labour practice charges against each of the cleaning contractors.’
Janitors asked for a modest raise from $8.35 per hour to $10 per hour to be phased in over four years, the union said. Janitorial contractors responded by offering a raise of 50 cents over five years – ‘an almost certain promise that janitors will continue to live in poverty,’ members said.
As the walkout heads into its second week, more than 400 janitors in 18 buildings are on strike and it is expected to grow next week, the union reported.
The strike has garnered local and national support from members of Congress and celebrities such as activist/actor Danny Glover. NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous raised the plight of the janitors’ during his keynote address at the NAACP Convention in Houston.
‘What’s happening in Houston is a microcosm of what’s happening to our whole country,’ said Elsa Caballero, state director for SEIU Local 1 Texas.
‘The gap between the richest 1% and working families is growing every day. It’s going to take bold action to rebuild our country’s middle class.’
Janitors in Houston, Minneapolis and other major cities clean the offices of some of the richest corporations in the world yet they struggle to make ends meet.
In Houston, that includes profitable corporations like Chevron, Hines, Brookfield, Shell Oil, and JP Morgan.
‘Despite record profits and inflated CEO pay, janitors who clean Houston’s office buildings are paid just $9,000 a year,’ SEIU Local 1 said.
Picketing also is planned this week in Washington D.C.; Seattle; San Ramon and Oakland, California; Boston, Los Angeles and Denver.
Low-wage workers will rally on a ‘Day of Action’ along with community leaders and union organizers on July 24.
l Labour unions in New York, including 32BJ Service Employees International Union and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), have embarked on aggressive efforts to organise workers at car washes, supermarkets and area airports.
United NY – a union-backed community group – is helping coordinate the afternoon event which starts with a press conference at Herald Square, followed by a march to Union Square and a rally.
‘Increasing wages for low-wage workers is crucial for real recovery in New York,’ said RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum. ‘It makes economic sense that low-wage workers do better. Every penny they get they are going to spend.’
According to United NY, the average minimum-wage worker makes just $15,000 a year.
And those who work in the service industry often see their tips stolen by employers and bosses.
‘We want to raise awareness that increasing the minimum wage makes a real difference in the lives of working people,’ said Héctor Figueroa, the secretary-treasurer of 32BJ SEIU. ‘This is what labour unions should really be about.’
James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute used some stark statistics to paint a picture of low-wage New York.
The number of New Yorkers making less than $10 an hour jumped from 16.4% in 1990 to 18.5% in 2010.
But when you take into account the size of the city’s workforce, the number of workers making less than $10 an hour increased by 42%, Parrott said.
‘It starts with raising the minimum wage but it doesn’t stop there,’ said Figueroa. ‘People need to secure health insurance and retirement benefits.’
While higher-wage jobs have been disappearing, lower-wage jobs – such as retail positions and home health aides – are on the upswing.