Last week, more than 3,200 janitors in Houston called an end to their five-week strike.
The cleaning contractors initially offered a total wage increase of $.50 an hour phased in over five years—so in 2016 the janitors would earn $8.85 an hour. The janitors asked for a raise to $10 an hour over three years.
In the end, the janitors accepted $9.35 an hour over four years, a 12 percent increase over their current pay. They also fought off an effort by the contractors that would have allowed them to underbid the union wage when competing against non-union shops.
It is distressing (though not surprising) that the janitors had to sacrifice to such an extent just to gain a raise of twenty-five cents an hour for four years. Houston is “Millionaire City,” after all, having added more millionaires to its population than any other city in the US for two years running. These janitors sanitize the bathrooms and workspaces, empty the trash, and vacuum the floors of some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world: JPMorganChase, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Wells Fargo, KBR and Marathon Oil to name a few. They do their work in the best-performing commercial real estate market in the US in terms of demand. Many in this predominantly female workforce literally have to run to clean more than 100 toilets in five hours each night.
Prior to the strike, the janitors earned about $8,684 annually. In four years, when they see their full raises, they will be paid about $10,000 annually.
This isn’t to say that what the janitors achieved isn’t significant and—more importantly—worthy of attention and great respect. They successfully organized in a right-to-work-state with a 3 percent private sector unionization rate. Texas is tied with Mississippi for having the highest proportion of minimum wage jobs in the nation, and one in five people working in Houston makes less than $10 an hour.
Despite this anti-labor environment, over 500 workers went on strike, some were locked out, and seventy-four were arrested in four civil disobedience actions.
“Any strike is hard, and any time that workers vote to go on strike it’s scary for them—it’s a huge sacrifice with a lot of unknowns,” Emily Heath, organizing director for SEIU Local 1, told me. “The resilience these workers showed—we didn’t lose people, people knew they had to see this through—they took incredible risks every day just being out on the streets, and they never questioned it. It was a struggle for better wages, and a better future for their kids. But it also became an example for Houstonians.”
Heath said that the janitors were “spurred on” by a “huge outpouring of community support—from other advocacy groups, labor unions, elected officials, and people of faith.”
“I don’t think average people had understood that janitors are so poor—that they have to take on two or three jobs and don’t see their kids. The more we got those stories out there and opened people’s eyes, the more we learned that the average Houstonian actually cared and wanted people to do better,” she said. “And the workers came to realize that people were watching, and if they succeeded it could inspire other low-wage workers.”
David Madland, director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, agrees that this win for the janitors is a significant one.
“It’s a real accomplishment—especially given the macro trends in the economy,” he said. “It also shows what an uphill battle all workers face and that we need to get those trends to be much more favorable to workers.”
He points to declining median wages, high unemployment, and low unionization that all result workers having very little leverage.
“That’s the entire story of the last thirty years—that workers in general have had very little economic power,” he said. “Almost all of the gains have gone to those at the very top.”
Madland’s recent report, Making Our Middle Class Stronger—35 Policies to Revitalize America’s Middle Class, includes policy recommendations to create jobs; to raise standards from the bottom; and to make basic goods like housing, healthcare, and education more affordable.
“It’s really about setting a floor, and lifting up the floor, so that when the economy does well everyone benefits,” said Madland. “It involves everything from pursuing full employment, to better rights to organize, to raising the minimum wage—and enforcing basic workplace standards—because even the minimum standards are so frequently violated.”
The janitors in Houston are determined to now play a role in raising the labor standards for other low-wage workers in the city. SEIU plans to organize airport workers (who often work below minimum wage), as well as Houston’s security guards and food service workers. Beyond efforts to organize assist other workers in organizing their workplaces, the janitors are involved in broader campaigns to protect Medicaid and fight wage theft.
Heath said there is a clear lesson to be learned from the fact that it took a Herculean effort for these workers to win a modest raise in a city enjoying “unprecedented prosperity.”
“It’s clear that our country still doesn’t value the work of service workers. We have to fight harder to make sure that the people who are cleaning the buildings, taking care of the elderly, teaching our kids—all the different kinds of service work—that those folks are coming to the forefront and that people understand and hear their stories,” she said. “And we need to be up front about income inequality. I don’t think people want to accept that people earn $9,000 a year cleaning the offices of billionaires.”
“This is a small but significant win that low-wage workers can hopefully build on to make major change in the Houston labor market,” said Madland.