Justice for Janitors

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The Nation

Justice for Janitors

Last week I reported that janitors in Houston reached an impasse in their month-long effort to renegotiate their expiring contract with cleaning contractors. The janitors are currently paid an hourly wage of $8.35 and earn an average of $8,684 annually. They seek a raise to $10 an hour over the next three years, but the contractors offered just a $0.50 pay raise phased in over five years.

In response, the janitors began asking building owners and tenants to intervene on their behalf—especially since the cleaning contractors claimed that those corporations were unwilling to cover higher wages, so their hands were tied.

Indeed 3,200 janitors in the city clean the offices of some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world. Surely these powerbrokers could influence the outcome of any negotiations? Yet despite janitors sharing their personal stories of struggling in poverty and asking for help from the likes of Chevron, ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo, Shell, JPMorgan Chase and real estate giants like Crescent Real Estate Equities (a subsidiary of Barclay’s) and Hines Real Estate, no party stepped forward as hoped.

“I went to speak to the owner of my building, Crescent, and the only response we got was the chief of security saying ‘I don’t care,’ ” said janitor Maria Teresa Lopez. “We know we are not important to these cleaning companies. They know we live paycheck to paycheck, yet our paychecks are often late by days.”

Additionally, janitors began reporting threats and harassment at the workplace as organizing efforts ramped up. So on Tuesday the janitors called a strike at the nine office buildings at Greenway Plaza. Charges of unfair labor practices were filed with the National Labor Relations Board. At another site, eleven janitors who work for New York–based cleaning contractor Pritchard also went on strike to protest unfair labor practices and were notified that they wouldn’t be allowed to return to work—in apparent violation of federal law. As of yesterday evening, the strike was scheduled to expand to two more buildings, including Wells Fargo Tower, where janitors report that the cleaning contractors are interfering with their right to engage in union activity. SEIU Local 1 spokesperson Paloma Martinez told me that the strike could now “move to any part of town, to several buildings or a whole section of town.”

"The janitors are making it clear that they see their fight for decent wages as one for low-wage workers throughout the city. Despite the fact that Houston leads the nation in creating new millionaires, one in five people working in the city makes less than $10 an hour, and Texas is tied with Mississippi for the highest proportion of minimum-wage jobs in the nation."

“It was the threats that pushed the janitors over the edge,” says Martinez. “Not only are you trying to survive day-to-day, trying to just put food on the table, but then you go into a caustic environment at work just because you’re trying to make your workplace better.”

In contrast to the building owners and tenants, the faith community in Houston has taken a strong stand to support the workers. It began on Sunday with an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle by Joseph Fiorenza, archbishop-emeritus of the Galveston-Houston Diocese.

“Critics of the requested meager increase seem to be either oblivious to a janitor’s struggle to live on $9,000 a year, or they are callous to the devastating effects of poverty on human life,” writes Fiorenza.

On Wednesday leaders from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities held a press conference to support the janitors and other low-wage workers, and talk about the importance of “family-sustaining wages” in a town where more than 825,000 people live in poverty. In 2006 too, faith leaders were instrumental in the janitors’ successful fight for union representation.

“The faith community really is the backbone for the janitors’ fight and for all working people in Houston,” says Martinez. “They provide a moral compass that business leaders in this town can’t turn their backs on.”

Although the moral case is clear and should be sufficient for people of conscience, the janitors and advocates are also making the case that raising sub-poverty wages is the best way to ensure Houston’s long-term economic viability. Latinos now represent 40 percent of the city’s population, and half of Latinos age 25 and older don’t have a high school degree. The business community has made it clear that the city needs to reverse its skyrocketing dropout rates.

“Those rates are a direct result of these poverty jobs and how pervasive they are in this city. It’s about parents not being able to be present at home,” argues Martinez. “They are working two to three jobs just to feed their families and put a roof over their heads. So you have kids who don’t see their parents, and parents who are exhausted all of the time. It’s difficult to give kids the guidance they need under those circumstances.”

“The youth of our community doesn’t [finish] high school because they are concerned with helping their parents survive day-to-day,” says Lopez. “I don’t want my daughter to fall into this trap, so I am fighting for her.”

The janitors are making it clear that they see their fight for decent wages as one for low-wage workers throughout the city. Despite the fact that Houston leads the nation in creating new millionaires, one in five people working in the city makes less than $10 an hour, and Texas is tied with Mississippi for the highest proportion of minimum-wage jobs in the nation.

“We are directly calling on other workers to come out with us. This momentum can be used to help all workers in Houston,” says Martinez. “This is about bringing energy, motivation and inspiration to other low-wage workers—restaurant workers, hotel workers and others—saying we can unite and organize. We can do something great together if we help each other.”

Greg Kaufmann

Greg Kaufmann is the poverty correspondent for The Nation and a contributor to BillMoyers.com. He covers poverty in America primarily through his blog, This Week in Poverty. Greg has been a guest on Moyers & Company, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, NPR’s Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, Here & Now, The Thom Hartmann Program, Stand Up! with Pete Dominick and The Matthew Filipowicz Show, as well as various local radio programs. His work has also been featured on Common Dreams, CBSNews.com, NPR.org, WashingtonPost.com, and BusinessInsider.com. He serves as an advisor for Barbara Ehrenreich’s Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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