Houston janitors fight for justice

HOUSTON — “It is misery,” said Ercilia Sandoval, who has worked as a janitor in Houston for seven years. In a fiery speech to 1,000 participants in the April 30 Justice for Janitors convention here, the El Salvador native said she is paid $5.25 an hour. On those wages, she “can’t pay for child care, can’t pay for food, can’t pay to ride the bus.”

Sandoval is diabetic and can’t afford to buy the medicine to treat her illness. She can’t afford dental care for her children. She sometimes cannot pay her rent. She declared, “It is an indignity. Sometimes they say they will pay more but never do. They said they would pay $6 an hour but when we got our check it was for $5.25. When we protested they said they didn’t have money to pay what they promised.”

Houston janitors eloquently described their plight at the convention, alternating with SEIU members from across the nation who had achieved the goals set by the Houston janitors — $10 an hour and family health care benefits. Houston janitors work for the same companies as janitors in other major cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. But in Houston, janitors make $5.25 an hour and have no health care benefits, whereas in other cities that have been organized, janitors make $10 an hour and have full family health benefits.

As I was listening to the speakers, I remembered that when I worked as a janitor in 1981, my hourly wage was $5.25. Many of the Houston janitors pointed out that they had been working for 20 years without a raise.

Houston janitors were joined by community supporters, religious leaders and SEIU janitors from California to New York. Many messages of solidarity were expressed by SEIU and ACORN. The crowd repeatedly thundered, “Si se puede!”

Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of the Houston Galveston Catholic Diocese and Houston Mayor Pro-Tem Carol Alvarado were among the many community leaders who addressed the convention. They encouraged janitors to organize and fight for better wages, health care and working conditions, pointing out that Houston has the highest rate of uninsured workers in the nation.

I was moved by the videotapes of Houston janitors that were presented at the convention. These featured the stories of Latina workers who are forced to work part-time with no health care benefits. These women work a few hours on one job and then jump on a bus to go to another job where they work a few more hours. They note they have no time to sleep. Some of them have serious health problems, such as cancer, and cannot pursue proper treatment since health care providers don’t want to schedule them if they cannot pay. They are worried about what will happen to their children if they die.

The majority of workers in Houston have no access to health care in spite of the world famous Texas Medical Center, which treats insured people or people who can afford to pay for care.

Convention speakers pointed out that 80 percent of the calls to the Houston Fire Department are for emergency medical care and this creates a huge problem for emergency rooms in hospitals. Of course, when people must resort to emergency care as their first line of treatment it is often too late. This system of medical care results in unnecessary deaths that shatter families, communities and surviving children.