HOUSTON - Janitors all over this town, most of whom earn less than $9,000 per year, walked off their jobs yesterday in a strike that sources in the union say may well spread to cities across the country.
Local 1 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents the workers, has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board against Houston's cleaning contractors who the union says have endangered earned healthcare benefits by failing to contribute to health and welfare funds.
The walkout yesterday followed a month of protests and one-day work stoppages throughout Houston. Hundreds walked off the job yesterday in the first citywide janitors' strike here since 2006.
The janitors rallied downtown today and sources in the union say the issues that are front and center in the Houston strike apply in many other cities as well and could well result in strikes spreading to other locations around the country.
"Enough is enough," said Maria Lopez, one of the demonstrators who cleans the Greenway Plaza Complex owned by Barclays Bank in Houston. "I work hard every day, cleaning 88 toilets on 11 floors, to support my daughter and I'm striking to stand up for my right to fight for a better life."
"The story of Houston's janitors is the story of every hard-working man and woman in this country who has stood up and fought for a better life for their family from the historic Bread and Roses strike to the first Flint sit down strikes," declared Elsa Caballero, Texas State Director of SEIU's Local1. "At a moment when our country has begun to confront the staggering implications of income inequality, Houston's janitors are on the frontline, fighting for justice."
Explaining the reason the union filed charges with the NLRB, Caballero said that cleaning contractors are using healthcare benefits to intimidate and threaten workers.
Three contractors, Pritchard, Aztec and Eurest, have stopped making contributions to the workers' health and welfare fund.
Meanwhile, two others, GCA and ISS, have stopped withholding worker contributions to the fund.
Caballero said this is an indication that, like Pritchard, Aztec and Eurest, they are also planning to cut employer contributions to the fund.
The moves by the contractors have spread panic among workers, she added, making them fearful that they are about to lose their health benefits,
Janitors, who have thrown up picket lines around key downtown buildings, have already received significant local and national backing. Among those supporting them are the actor Danny Glover, the Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tx.) and NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous.
Janitors in Houston and in other cities clean the offices of some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, including many that rake in huge profits. On that list are Chevron, Hines, Shell Oil and JPMorgan Chase. The janitors here earn less than $9,000 per year. For a family of four the official poverty level is $22, 314.
The contractors claimed that they were not in a position to give any wage increases because the big companies that hired them to bring in the janitors were refusing to budge.
The union, therefore, has stepped up its efforts to talk, wherever possible, directly to the corporations. Some of the janitors now on strike in Houston, for example, confronted Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase recently when he was on Capitol Hill in Washington. They asked him how a company raking in billions in profits could justify paying its janitors so little.
Victopr Lopez, a janitor at an office building on Dearborn St. in downtown Chicago, told the PW that he "can't understand how some of these big executives down there can continue, in good conscience, to allow their janitors to be paid so little. These are human beings, they come in to clean your garbage pails and sinks and toilets. Maybe you ask them how they are doing today, how is the wife, the kids and then you turn around and go about your business unconcerned about another human being's pain and suffering. It is disgusting."
In Chicago union janitors earn more than twice what their counterparts in Houston earn.
Union activists say that the janitors in Houston, however, and are struggling to do everything they can to support their families and that this makes it particularly outrageous that so many of them live in despair, month after month, wondering how they will make ends meet.
They also note that Houston, of all places, should not be a city where the workers have to live the way they do. The Houston commercial real estate industry market is considered one of the richest in the nation. Average commercial rents in Houston are higher than they are in Chicago, for example, where janitors are paid more than three times as much annually as they are paid here. Even in Detroit, where vacancy rates are astronomical and rental rates are far lower than in Houston, janitors are paid $2 an hour more than they are paid here.
"Let's be clear," said Caballero, "We will not stand by while the hard-working men and women who clean some of Houston's most exclusive, most profitable real estate continue to make poverty wages."