By: Lisa M. Smith
The Service Employees International Union Janitors in Houston went on strike June 1st because they are looking to raise their contract wages to $10 an hour. Multiple cleaning companies’ contracts expired May 31st. The SEIU Local 1 union has a membership of 3,200.
These janitor’s yearly salary equals to under $9,000 a year, which is extremely below the government’ s poverty line of $11,139 for an individual and $22,314 for a family of four. Their yearly salary would have many of us scrambling and stressed out trying to make ends meet. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.
Janitor Maria Lopez, 41-year-old Mexican immigrant, has been working for ABM in downtown Houston for five years. She works 30 hours a week and she cleans 11 floors of bathrooms, which include approximately 100 urinals, within six hours a day. She along with other part-time janitors earn $8.35 an hour or approximately $250.50 weekly for a 30 hour work week. Contractors have offered a combined 50 cents an hour raise, over the course of a five-year contract. Undoubtably, with the cost living increasing, the janitors will sink even further into poverty.
Although some of the downtown Houston buildings the janitors are servicing such as: United Airlines, Shell, JPMorgan Chase, El Paso Energy, Corp., KBR and ExxonMobil, are some of the most wealthy corporations in America, they are being paid the lowest wages in the nation. Average commercial rental rates in Houston are higher than rates in Chicago where janitors are paid more than three times as much as Houston janitors.
“While janitors are fighting for enough money to keep the lights on and feed their children, the building owners are pulling money out of the services that help the average Houstonian,” said Durrell Douglas of the Texas Organizing Project, who supports the janitors’ union. He continues, “While some people are scraping pennies together to live, the building owners are not hurting, and they are not paying their fair share.”
Mark Vorpahl, a union steward and writer for Workers’ Action, said that there are two features of the jantor’s strike that make it exceptional. The strike highlights the growing inequality that exists in this nation and the need to fight it.
Vorphal states, “Houston leads the nation in the growth of the number of millionaires. The companies targeted by the strike in its public campaign are some of the main players in the big business elite. On the other hand, not even the most rabid right-wing pro-corporate media can effectively portray the janitors as greedy unionists. This strike has the potential to tap into a growing discontent in the U.S. over inequality that helped launch Occupy as well as the Madison, Wisconsin Capital occupation in 2011. The other exceptional feature of this struggle is the use of work stoppages and rallies nationally in solidarity with the Houston janitors. Solidarity strikes was one of the tactics employed by the CIO in the 1930s that propelled its rapid growth. Because of this tactic’s effectiveness, it was outlawed in 1947 with the bi-partisan passage of the Taft-Hartley Act.”
He continues “by highlighting the issue of inequality and countering the contractors with a nationwide response that uses work stoppages, SEIU is challenging the limits of the corporate political machine. It will be necessary to break these boundaries for Houston’s janitors, and all workers, to decisively win.”
The Houston strike has began a rolling strike across the nation. In Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Seattle, Boston, and Oakland and San Ramon in California, SEIU janitors by the same firms can choose not to cross the picket line.
Janitors in San Fransiciso has threatened to go on strike by the middle of this week, if they do not get a new contract, leaving 450 downtown buildings with no one to clean them. The San Francisco Maintenance Contractors Association says it’s negotiating in good faith and expects to reach a fair agreement.
Recently at the NAACP Convention, Ms. Alice McAfee, a janitor in Houston for over thirty years, addressed the audience and received a standing ovation. “We think we’ve moved past discrimination but we haven’t,” McAfee told the convention audience. “Now it’s low-wage workers who are treated like second-class citizens.… This fight is about putting an end to discrimination once and for all—racism, discrimination against immigrants, and discrimination against the working poor. This is about restoring dignity to all work.” Additionally, audience members began handing her cash. A total of $3,200 in unsolicited donations went into the janitors’ strike fund.
The last time janitors had a strike was in 2006. The outcome of this strike resulted in Houston janitors reaching an agreement with five major cleaning contractors that doubled their income wages rise from $5.30 per hour on average to $7.75, and provided them with health insurance. Additionally, their shifts lengthened to six hours, as opposed to four hours. Throughout the strike 2006 strike, the SEIU applied more pressure to the owners of the buildings cleaned by the Houston janitors than to the cleaning contractors that employ them. Building owners ultimately have to absorb the cost of higher wages and benefits for janitors, and the union accused this oil-enriched business community of hoarding energy profits while keeping janitors in poverty.
Only time and money will tell what the outcome of this strike will result in.