Striking Houston janitors gain support as negotiations resume

After a burst of activity that included acts of civil disobedience and building a broad base of community support for striking Houston janitors, negotiations between the janitors and their employers reconvened. The striking janitors are seeking to increase their hourly pay to $10 an hour.

Three Houston property management companies that oversee facility maintenance for downtown office buildings recently received a letter from the executive director of the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS).  CalSTRS owns 2 percent of the real estate market in Houston, and while none of its buildings are affected by the strike, it is concerned about the impact that a prolonged strike will have on its investments.

Striking janitors, who belong to SEIU Local 1, last month traveled to West Sacramento, to speak to CalSTRS’ investment committee about the issues involved in the strike. According to the minutes of a recent CalSTRS board meeting, the janitors “asked CalSTRS to contact the property manager of one of their properties and ask that the property manager urge his subcontractor to settle with the union.”

On July 21 CalSTRS Executive Director Jack Ehnes and Chief Investments Officer Christopher Ailman sent letters to three property management firms  Thomas Property Group Inc., CBRE Global Investors, and Pacific Coast Capital Partners expressing concerns about the labor-management situation in Houston.

Pensions and Investments reprinted a paragraph from the letter reading,

Obviously, protracted labor disputes have the potential to negatively impact investment returns, and actions that detract from the likelihood and potential for economic growth are not in CalSTRS’ long-term interests.

After the Houston property managers received the letter, seven SEIU members on July 31 held a sit-in at One Allen Center, blocking access to an escalator and were arrested. Five of those arrested were fellow SEIU janitors from  Chicago.

Shortly after the initial arrests,  28 more supporters were arrested for acts of civil disobedience, bringing the total number of those arrested since the strike began to 69.

On the heels of the arrests, SEIU announced that it and SEIU locals around the country had committed half a million dollars to support the Houston strike.

“The fight for good jobs is critical to every one of us in this country,” said Valerie Long, SEIU executive vice-president. “This generous contribution is just a start.  While we hope the building owners and cleaning companies will do the right thing and end poverty wages, we will make sure that the janitors in Houston have the money to keep fighting as long as they need to.”

Shortly after the acts of civil disobedience, a broad coalition of clergy organized by the Metropolitan Organization urged both sides to resume negotiations and asked SEIU to refrain from further acts of civil disobedience.

Negotiations between the two sides resumed on August 2 and continued through August 3 without a settlement. The two sides agreed to meet again on August 8.

The day before negotiations resumed, the janitors held a rally and press conference  in downtown Houston where  US Representative Gene Green and Mayor Annise Parker expressed their support for the janitors. They were joined by other elected officials.

“We are here today to ask the business community to take a lead in urging cleaning companies to come to a fair resolution with janitors and act in the best interest of our city,” said state Representative Armando Walle at the rally.

“We are appealing one last time to support higher wages for our janitors,” stated state Representative Sylvester Turner.

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