Governor Mitt Romney got all the press at the NAACP convention in Houston on Wednesday, but janitor Alice McAfee got a standing-o. She spoke to a packed auditorium about her plight and that of over 3,000 fellow janitors in the city.
The Houston janitors are currently paid an hourly wage of $8.35 and earn an average of $8,684 annually, despite cleaning the offices of some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world—Chevron, ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo, Shell Oil, JPMorgan Chase, and others in the “City of Millionaires.” They are asking building owners and cleaning contractors for a raise to $10 an hour over the next three years; the counter offer is a $0.50 pay raise phased in over five years, virtually guaranteeing that the janitors continue to live in poverty.
On Tuesday, following a month of protests and one-day strikes, 250 janitors in nine buildings walked off the job to begin a citywide strike. By today, janitors from eighteen buildings will have joined the picket line. They are protesting employer harassment—including potential stripping of healthcare benefits and workplace intimidation—in response to the workers’ attempt to improve wages and benefits. The workers won’t return to their jobs until the cleaning contractors return to the bargaining table.
“We think we’ve moved past discrimination but we haven’t,” McAfee told the convention. “Now it’s low-wage workers who are treated like second-class citizens… This fight is about putting an end to discrimination once and for all—racism, discrimination against immigrants, and discrimination against the working poor. This is about restoring dignity to all work.”
In addition to giving McAfee a standing ovation, audience members started spontaneously handing her cash—and it just kept coming; a total of $3,200 in unsolicited donations will be deposited into the janitors’ strike fund.
I had a chance to speak with Ms. McAfee on the phone yesterday about her experience at the convention, her work, and where the strike is headed. She told me she’s been a janitor in Houston for thirty years.
“And I have never missed a day, I have never been late. I take great pride in my work,” she said.
McAfee works at the Galleria Tower II and describes her job as “very hard, very strenuous.”
“They used to give me five hours to do three floors,” she said. “Now I have four hours for five floors. Something’s wrong with the picture.”
Her voice sounded distinctly elderly to me, and Adriana Vasquez had spoken of older janitors whom she worries about as they tackle grueling work. I asked would she mind telling me her age?
“Tell you what,” she said, “age and weight are two things you don’t ask a lady.”
So we moved on. Like Vasquez, McAfee said she has to literally run to finish her work on time.
“You’re running from the time you get in until the time you leave because if you’re not, no way you’re going to complete the work,” she said. “You got to punch out at 10:00 PM on the dot or they will write you up for insubordination because you’re not doing what they tell you to do on time. We don’t have no breaks, and when you get finished you’re so tired you need somebody to drive you home.”
Beginning at 6:00 PM, McAfee’s work includes “heavy floors” which she describes as “a lot of heavy garbage, boxes, books”—both Wilson Architects and JPMorgan Chase require this kind of labor. (She cleans for Chase on the 4th, 20th and 21st floors. In Congress, CEO Jamie Dimon told Vasquez to call him at his office to discuss the fact that he doesn’t pay his janitors a living wage. So far, however, he hasn’t returned her call.) She cleans kitchenettes; mops the floors; does “high dusting and low dusting;” rids glass desktops of finger smudges; cleans and dusts pictures.
“I take great pride in my work and I like to do it right,” McAfee said. “But now that they have cut the hours and increased the workload, there’s just no way for me to do it the way I want to. I’m doing eight to twelve hours work in four hours, and it’s just impossible.”
McAfee said she has been “targeted” since joining the union. Not only did her employer then increase her workload and cut her hours, her supervisor said she “wants me off the job.”
“But I do my work, stay focused, stay prayed up, and move on,” said McAfee.
Moving on this week meant telling the NAACP and others her story.
“People need to know we are professional janitors and when we go to work, we work hard,” she said. “Right now we’re needing to choose between turning on our a/c, or our box fan, and buying gas. We give building owners and CEOs an honest day’s work and we are only asking for a fair, honest day’s pay in return.”