Houston janitors ratify contract, end strike

Houston janitors on August 11 voted unanimously to ratify a new contract with cleaning contractors ending their month-long strike. The janitors were striking for a fair wage increase. The new contract increases the janitors’ hourly wage rate from $8.35 an hour to $9.35 an hour. The raise will come in increments over the four-year period of the contract.

“This is a huge victory for janitors and so many workers,” said Adriana Vasquez, a bargaining committee member and janitor who works for ISS at Chase Tower. “With this new contract, our families can live a little better.”

Those who attended the Saturday union meeting where the ratification vote took place seemed to agree with Vasquez, even though the final contract fell short of the $10 an hour wage rate that the striking janitors were seeking.

The strikers were facing daunting odds. Only about 400 of the 3,200 janitors who belong to their union, SEIU Local 1, were on strike, and the cleaning contractors, all of whom are large corporations with facility cleaning contracts all over the world, were able to continue  cleaning buildings and keep revenue flowing.

But while the janitors’ strike was unable to shut down their employers’ operation, the union built an effective mobilization campaign that relied on civil disobedience to disrupt the everyday business of the businesses that use the cleaning contractors for janitorial services. Sixty-nine union members and supporters were arrested in sit-ins.

The union also worked to build support in the community for the under paid janitors. Religious, community, and political leaders rallied to support the janitors putting pressure on the cleaning contractors to raise their original offer, which amounted to a yearly raise of $0.10 an hour over a five-year period.

Union leaders said that the mobilization efforts by union members and their supporters was key to getting the cleaning contractors to change their minds about their original offer.

“As I sat at the bargaining table, I can tell you that it was that mobilization, and pressure from religious leaders, elected officials, community groups and individuals from Houston, the country and the world, that moved management to this compromise” said Valerie Long, SEIU executive vice-president in a statement about the new contract. “It’s a compromise that protects wages and benefit gains that janitors have won since 2006 and allows the contractors to bid competitively.”

It certainly was a compromise. The Houston Chronicle reports that the agreement applies only to janitors cleaning office buildings of 200,000 square feet or more. The cleaning contractors will still be able to pay a lower wage for cleaning smaller buildings. The contractors said that they needed this exception to compete with non-union companies that clean the smaller buildings.

Janitors cleaning the larger buildings will see their wages increase by 12 percent during the life of the contract.

SEIU leaders said that the contract helped the Houston janitors make progress toward escaping poverty, but noted that much more work needs to be done in Houston and across the nation.

“We made progress here in Houston, and the janitors’ victory brings hope to security officers, airport workers, and others trapped in poverty wages,” said Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1. “Our economy is broken and unless we do something to turn low-wage jobs into good jobs, the  middle class will be the great disappearing act of the 21st century.”

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