Janitors in Houston prevail

HOUSTON – Houston janitors tentatively settled a strike on Nov. 20 and reached an agreement for a three-year contract. The agreement includes wage increases as follows, “$1.15 increase the first year, $1.00 the second year, and $0.50 the third year.” This will mean an increase from $5.30 an hour to $7.75 an hour over 3 years.

Also included was an agreement on health care, “The third year is when single payer health insurance will kick in and janitors will pay $20 per month into that plan. It is a plan designed and managed by SEIU and we are hoping to get all of our members nationwide on this plan.” The agreement also 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 discipline actions.

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 their employers fought back hard. SEIU employed a wide range of tactics to pressure the employers to do the right thing. Tactics included rallies, picket lines, prayer vigils, marches, acts of civil disobedience, and lawsuits.

Several acts of civil disobedience resulted in stopping Houston traffic. These acts also resulted in arrests and horrendous acts of police brutality. On Nov. 17, 44 people were arrested and many were assaulted by mounted police officers. One 83-year-old janitor was injured and taken to a hospital by ambulance.

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.

Support was registered from around the world. Labourstart, a UK-based international labor website, mounted an e-mail campaign focused on the CEO of Chevron. The Chevron building in downtown Houston was the site of an act of civil disobedience in which 14 union organizers and janitors handcuffed themselves to the front door.

SEIU represents 5,300 janitors in the Houston area. About 1,700 participated in the strike.

Political leaders from around the country supported the strike including Congressmen John Lewis and Al Green. Organizations including Harris County AFL-CIO, Houston NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference also supported the strike.

The janitors’ victory shows that with unity and solidarity workers can win, even in union-resistant Houston.