Activists support Houston janitors; Mayor calls on cleaning corporations to resume negotiations

Labor and community activists on Wednesday, July 18 showed their support for striking Houston janitors by staging a sit-in at a busy downtown Houston intersection. Police arrested 15 people taking part in the sit-in, but the action and the possibility of similar actions in the future led Houston Mayor Annise Parker to issue a strong statement urging the janitors’ employers to return to the bargaining table.

“I am calling on the contracting companies to go back to the negotiating table,” Mayor Parker said in a statement released Friday, July 20.  “Their unwillingness to talk has left the union with no other choice but civil disobedience.  That is not good for the City of Houston or our economy and it is not how we do business in Houston.  We work hard, we work together and we treat each other fairly.  The union has made good-faith offers.  Now it’s time for the janitorial contractors to sit back down at the table to work out an agreement that is fair and just.”

SEIU Local 1, the union to which the striking janitors belong, said that the sit-in, which took place at the intersection of Bell and Smith, “harkens back to the civil rights movement” when civil rights supporters, some of whom were called “outside agitators” took direct, non-violent action to protest segregation laws.

One of those arrested Wednesday was Johnny N. Mata of the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice One. Mata characterized that the economic injustice that sparked Wednesday’s sit-in as “deplorable.”

The janitors are seeking a modest raise that would increase their hourly wage from $8.35 to $10. Their employers, national and international cleaning corporations like GCA and ISS, have said that they can’t afford to pay the janitors a decent wage because the banks, oil companies, and other businesses whose offices they clean are pressuring them to keep costs down.

SEIU has pointed out that the same cleaning corporations that say that can’t afford to pay janitors $10 an hour are paying janitors in Chicago three times what janitors in Houston make despite the fact that commercial real estate rents in Chicago are lower than they are in Houston.

“The janitor’s struggle is an example of what’s wrong with our economy and a road map in miniature of what we need to change,” said Elsa Caballero, Texas SEIU Local 1 executive director, who was arrested during the sit-in. “Unless we fight back and fight back hard, the middle class will be the great disappearing act of the twenty-first century.”

The position that the cleaning corporations have taken during negotiations is even worse than it appears. SEIU has reported that the best that the corporations are willing to offer is a $0.50 raise that would be implemented in increments over the course of a five-year contract.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the cleaning corporations also want janitors to agree to lower their wages below the contract rates when the cleaning corporations bid for jobs against non-union companies, which now comprise about 33 percent of the Houston cleaning services market.

When the janitors rejected the cleaning corporations attempt to limit wage increases and in some cases actually lower wages, the cleaning corporations tried to intimidate them into accepting a contract on the corporations’ terms.

Some of them stopped making contributions to the janitors’ health care fund, and others indicated that they might follow suit. That’s what led some SEIU Local 1 members to walk off the job.

Over the course of the last two weeks the oringinal strikers have been joined by others. SEIU in a statement said that 475 out of a total of 3,200 union janitors at 36 different buildings are out on strike.

Unfortunately, because all of the union janitors aren’t on strike, corporate offices are still getting cleaned, which has taken some pressure off the cleaning corporations to return to the bargaining table.

SEIU is hoping that direct actions like the sit-ins will help increase public support for the janitors and that this support will pressure the corporations back to the bargaining tale. So far, the janitors seem to have the sympathy of the general public. A Fox News survey found that 63 percent of Houstonian surveyed believe the janitors should be paid more.

One of those members of the public who support the janitors is Resha Thomas, a leader of the Texas Organizing Project, a community organization that unites low- and middle-income workers.

“This fight is an example of a tale of two cities and there is a clear line between the haves and have-nots,” said Thomas, one of those arrested during the sit-in. “I stand with janitors because they will raise the floor for all working families without tearing down the ceiling.”

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