In the heart of a $100 billion oil industry, janitors struggle on $106 a week

HOUSTON — Demanding wage increases to $8.50 per hour, more work hours, and access to health care, a convention of 800 janitors voted overwhelmingly Sept. 23 to authorize their SEIU bargaining committee to call the city’s 5,300 union janitors out on strike if necessary. At contract talks on the previous day, the workers formally presented their demands to ABM, OneSource, GCA, Sanitors and Pritchard, the five largest cleaning contractors in Houston.

Houston janitors earn an average wage of $5.30 an hour ($106 a week) and receive no health insurance or other benefits. The Center for Public Policy Priorities estimates that average expenses for a family of four are nearly $700 a week in Houston. The majority of Houston janitors hold down second and third jobs. Compared with janitors in other cities who work for the same companies and are members of SEIU, the Houston workers are the lowest paid in the country.

In Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., janitors make over $10 an hour and can work full-time and have health insurance. Eliseo Medina, international executive vice president of SEIU, told the convention, “Houston, we have a problem!”

Janitor Ercilia Sandoval has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is fighting for her life. Sandoval addressed a Justice for Janitors rally in April 2005 in the midst of the fight for the right to form a union. The janitors were victorious in that struggle, joining SEIU Local 1, but still have no health care coverage.

“This is personal,” she told the Sept. 23 rally. “My daughters may grow up without a mother now because I had no health care, no early detection or timely treatment.” Dramatically taking off her wig to show the effects of her chemotherapy, she declared, “We are not a commodity, we are real human beings. I’m fighting for access to affordable health care for all working families in Houston so no one else has to go through what my family and I are facing now.”

Houston is home to the largest energy corporations in the USA. But 30 percent of the city’s children live in poverty while four of the largest oil companies in Houston made a total of over $100 billion last year, Alana Hill of ACORN noted. It’s hard to believe the office maintenance industry, which made $3 billion last year “can’t afford to do better for our city,” she said.

An impressive coalition joined the action demanding justice for the janitors including U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Gene Green, and Al Green, an array of state representatives, city council members and a county commissioner. Also present were the Communications Workers union, the AFL-CIO, Unite Here, NAACP, CRECEN, ACORN, and the Latino Labor Council.

“There is a need for these people to get support from everybody and every organization in Houston,” Ivonne Moreira, executive director of Young Immigrants for a Better Future, explained. “We want the workers of Houston to get equal rights.”

Avery Cooper, a young African American who works with Houston Organization for Public Employees, told the World, “I’m here to support the labor movement so the janitors can get better working conditions, health benefits and better wages.”