Houston janitors score big victory

HOUSTON — Nationwide pressure — everything from pending strikes elsewhere to a strong statement from a key U.S. senator — plus images of Houston’s mounted police beating and arresting unarmed janitors forced this city’s top cleaning firms to bargain and finally give striking janitors here a big win on Nov. 20.

The tentative contract increases wages from $5.30 to $7.75 an hour over three years, plus more hours. Included in the pact is health care coverage, provided for the first time. The pact includes two weeks paid vacation per year and six paid holidays. There is also a grievance procedure in place and all striking workers will get their jobs back with no disciplinary actions.

The service employees union represents 5,300 janitors in the Houston area. About 1,700 workers participated in the strike.

“This is an incredible victory for our families and for all families,” said Ercilia Sandoval, a union janitor. “When I go back to work, I will go back proud of what we have accomplished, not just for us and our families, but for all of the workers in this city who work very hard but are paid very little. We showed what can be done, what must be done to make America a better place.”

Flora Aguilar, a member of the SEIU bargaining committee, addressed his co-workers gathered at the convention center, Nov. 20, “Nobody thought that poor Latinos of Houston would be successful, but today we can stand up and carry our heads very high. We all won today.”

Before the pact, janitors working for the cleaning firms that hired them to take care of Houston’s office buildings earned an average of $20 a day for a five-day week.

Keys to the contract, besides the citywide mobilization, were nationwide support and images of mounted Houston police beating and arresting janitors during a Nov. 16 demonstration. Four janitors, including one 83-year-old who was taken to a hospital by ambulance, were injured and 44 arrested. SEIU janitors in other cities where the cleaning firms handle buildings put the firms — and the building owners — on notice that janitors elsewhere could mount strikes on behalf of their Houston colleagues.

The janitors also drew notice by marching on Chevron’s Houston headquarters, saying the city’s dominant landlord and biggest oil company should weigh in on behalf of the underpaid workers who clean its buildings. That march prompted support from incoming Senate Labor Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

On the day before the strike settlement, the AFL-CIO-affiliated Labor Council for Latin American Advancement held a food drive near Harris County AFL-CIO headquarters in an act of solidarity with the striking janitors. The food drive was called by Angela Mejia, president of Texas LCLAA.

The strike started on Oct. 23 and was very difficult since the employers fought back hard. SEIU employed a wide range of tactics, including rallies, picket lines, prayer vigils, marches, acts of civil disobedience and lawsuits.

Janitors from around the country came to Houston to join the strike. Javier Morillo, president of SEIU Local 26 in Minneapolis, as well as SEIU President Andrew Stern joined the strikers.

LabourStart, a UK-based international labor web site, mounted an e-mail campaign focused on the CEO of Chevron. Congressmen John Lewis and Al Green and organizations including Harris County AFL-CIO, Houston NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference supported the strike.

The local union said in a Nov. 21 statement, “The increase in wages and hours will lift many families out of poverty, and provide janitors and their families with a steppingstone into the middle class while the health insurance will ensure workers have access to affordable health care.”

The SEIU said the janitors’ success in Houston will also show other workers in the mostly anti-union South the value of organizing and unionizing.

phill2 @ houston.rr.com

Mark Gruenberg of PAI contributed to this story.