In Houston, more than 3,200 janitors clean the offices of some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world: JP Morgan Chase, Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Wells Fargo, KBR and Marathon Oil to name a few. For their labor, they are paid an hourly wage of $8.35 and earn an average of $8,684 annually. Two janitors together would earn about $17,300 a year—still well below the poverty line of $22,314 for a family of four.
Yesterday, the contract between the janitors and the cleaning contractors expired. SEIU Local 1 spent the past month trying to reach an agreement to raise the janitors’ hourly wage to $10 over the next three years. But the contractors countered with an offer of a $.50 pay raise phased in over five years and—according to SEIU spokesperson Paloma Martinez— said that they “wouldn’t budge.” The contractors claimed that the building owners and tenants—the aforementioned corporations—aren’t willing to pay anything close to a living wage.
In response the janitors voted to authorize their bargaining committee to call a strike. For workers already struggling on sub-poverty wages, this was no easy decision.
“We are always perceived as a low category of people. People assume because we are janitors we must be uneducated, rude, or thieves... For years we’ve been ignored and when we try to improve our lives many laugh at us. But despite the obstacles, we’re going to do whatever it takes to make it happen, which includes going on strike. Everyone who works hard deserves a good life." -- Hernan Trujillo, a Houston janitor
“The workers were really insulted by the offer,” said Martinez. “The contractors said they weren’t going to move and they blamed it on the building owners, but we all know the state of the real estate market here.”
With the city enjoying the fruits of the energy industry, Houston’s commercial real estate market is indeed the best performing market in the US in terms of demand. It has the highest number of new corporate real estate projects in the nation, vacancy rates below the national average, and rising rental rates.
Nevertheless the city’s janitors are among the lowest paid in the nation, with workers in cities with far weaker real estate markets earning a significantly higher hourly wage: Cincinnati ($9.80), Cleveland ($10.30), Detroit ($10.97), and Chicago ($15.45) are a few examples.
“While many of us do all that we can to provide a decent living for our families, we are paid poverty wages and are full of despair not knowing how are we going to get to the end of the month,” said Hernan Trujillo, who cleans offices in downtown Houston and has been active in organizing his colleagues. “We can’t provide education for our children or buy medicine when we get sick.”
The janitors are now reaching out directly to the building owners and tenants and asking for their help. Martinez says that even though these parties aren’t directly involved in the negotiations, an ExxonMobil or a Wells Fargo could easily influence any outcome.
“This is a good opportunity for them to say, ‘We’re going to do right by Houstonians. We’re going to do right by working people,’” said Martinez. “But so far there really hasn’t been much of a response.”
In a city that has a poverty rate which has risen steadily over the last four years and is higher than the national average, and a cost of living estimated at approximately $47,200 annually for a family of four, the significance of these negotiations extend beyond the lives of the janitors and their families.
“People who have never worked poverty jobs in their lives suggest that the solution is to find another job,” said Trujillo. “[But] these jobs will always exist. Housekeeping jobs are going to be needed. Instead of ignoring the problem, we need to improve these jobs. All hard work should be respected with living wages.”
Martinez notes that opponents of living wages often argue that low-wage workers simply need to better educate themselves so that they can qualify for higher paying jobs.
“People can’t get other jobs because they have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet,” she says. “They want to get new skills, to get educated, but how are they going to do that if they literally have to figure out every single day how to put food on the table? We need to move towards making these positions full time-family sustaining jobs, emulating the standard of many other cities.”
One can imagine an executive at Wells or Chevron or Shell who might develop a rapport with a worker cleaning his or her office—ask about the family, their other jobs, that sort of thing. Maybe when Christmas rolls around there is a cash gift. But when push comes to shove, and the stakes are high as they are at this moment, how many people will actually step forward for the workers who sanitize their bathrooms and workspace, empty the trash, vacuum the floors—do the hard work they depend on every day?
“We are always perceived as a low category of people. People assume because we are janitors we must be uneducated, rude, or thieves,” says Trujillo. “For years we’ve been ignored and when we try to improve our lives many laugh at us. But despite the obstacles, we’re going to do whatever it takes to make it happen, which includes going on strike. Everyone who works hard deserves a good life. We want to make Houston a city that works for workers.”