Houston janitors strike.

Update: More Houston janitors have walked off the job. SEIU Local 1 reports that by Friday, July 12 janitors at nine more buildings have joined the strike. Read more at http://www.seiu1.org/2012/07/12/houston-janitors-strike-continues-to-grow-2/.

Tuesday night (July 10) hundreds of Houston janitors walked off their jobs to protest employer misconduct and harassment. By Wednesday morning, the janitors and their supporters were picketing the Houston offices of some of the world’s wealthiest corporations whose buildings are cleaned by the striking janitors.

“Enough is enough ,” said Maria Lopez, one of the strikers. “I work hard every day cleaning 88 toilets across 11 floors to support my daughter. I am striking today to stand up for my right to a better life.”

Lopez works at the Greenway Plaza office complex at a building owned by Crescent/Barclays, an international real estate investment firm owned by the British banking giant Barclays.

She and her cohorts work for cleaning contractors like Pritchard, one of the world’s largest privately owned service companies that’s headquartered in New York. Another contractor is Eurest Services, owned by the Compass Group, an international corporation that provides food and support services. During the first six months of 2012, Compass reported revenues of $13.6 billion and operating profits of $974.8 million.

The walkout and subsequent strike is the latest development in an ongoing struggle by 3,200 Houston janitors for a decent wage increase.

The janitors, who belong to SEIU Local 1 and make $8.35 an hour, had been negotiating with Houston cleaning contractors for a new contract. Talks between the two sides broke off on May 31. Contractors would agree only to a $0.50 an hour raise that would be phased in over the five years of the new contract.

The janitors, most of whom work 30 hours or less a week, want to increase their hourly wage to $10 an hour. According to SEIU, the average annual pay for a janitor is $9,000.

Unlike most low-paid workers in Texas, the SEIU janitors because they belong to a union have health insurance paid for with employer and employee contributions.

But three of the cleaning contractors, Pritchard, Eurest, and Aztec, have stopped making payments to their employees’ health care fund. Two other contractors, GCA and ISS, stopped withholding employee contributions to the health care fund, which has led janitors to believe that the contractors would soon stop making payments to the fund.

SEIU called the contractors’ decision to stop contributing to the health care fund “another tactic to threaten and intimidate workers” and said that it created  “a sense of panic among workers that their health care coverage is in peril,” which led to the walkout.

Since contract talks broke down in May, the janitors have been working without a contract. They voted to authorize a strike in early June, but most have remained on the job. During the last six weeks, they have waged a campaign to get corporations like JP Morgan Chase that hire the cleaning contractors to pressure the contractors into agreeing to a decent wage increase.

The janitors’ campaign has won the support of some prominent people. Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, Archbishop Emeritus of Galveston-Houston, recently held a prayer vigil for the janitors where he said,

I appeal to all people of good will to be in solidarity with the janitors as they seek a modest increase of pay. I appeal to the owners of these magnificent buildings in downtown Houston, the Galleria and Greenway Plaza areas to take up the cause of those who clean their buildings. Above all, human dignity must be honored and respected as much as we would respect any worker contributing to the welfare of Houston.

Last week actor Danny Glover and US Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee told a packed meeting room of janitors and their supporters that they were standing with the janitors and urged others to join them in this just cause.

Elsa Caballero, Texas State Director for SEIU Local 1, made it clear that despite the intimidation and threats, the janitors were determined to win a fair wage increase and their union won’t hesitate to escalate the fight.

“Let’s be clear,” she said. “We will not stand by in silence while the hard-working men and women who clean some of Houston’s most exclusive, most profitable real estate continue to make poverty wages.”

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