Houston Janitors Walk Out

On July 10, janitors walked off the job and started night picketing outside key downtown buildings in Houston. These workers clean the offices of some of the richest corporations in the world, including Chevron, Hines, Shell Oil, and J.P. Morgan. They are paid less than $9000 annually, which is less than half the poverty level.

This is a city where one in five workers make less than $10 an hour. The janitors are calling on all workers to “take back millionaire city.” Houston is the home of more millionaires than any other city in the United States.

Elsa Caballero, SEIU Local 1, said, “The story of Houston’s janitors is the story of every hard-working man and woman in this country who has stood up and fought for a better life for their family from the historic Bread and Roses strike to the Flint sit down strikes. Houston janitors are on the frontline, fighting for justice.” According to a Fox News poll, 63% of Houstonians believe janitors should be paid more for their work.

The workers’ contract expired on May 31. They are asking for a raise of from $8.35 an hour to $10, which would be phased in over four years. The building owners and contractors offered a raise of fifty cents over five years. After the union members refused the offer, they were harassed and intimidated by their employers. Some workers said they were told they would be fired. That is when they called for a citywide strike.

The union had been preparing by holding rallies and one-day strikes. In addition, they gathered the support of community organizations and individuals. The NAACP’s President Ben Jealous, actor/activist Danny Glover, and faith-based organizations are standing with the strikers.

On the first Sunday of the strike, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza held a prayer vigil at Tranquility Park, where he supported the janitors and their union: “Some are not supportive of the janitors because they belong to SEIU, a union which organized these janitors. If it were not for the union, we would not know their desperate situation, and the janitors would still be working for $5 an hour; we would not know that janitors could be fired without a just cause or that their work hours would be reduced but their workload would not be lessened. The cause of janitors is right and just. Stand in solidarity with the janitors in their time of need.”

On July 18, 15 activists from across the country were arrested. They came to support the Houston janitors from Ohio, Georgia, Maryland, and Washington D.C. The activists were surrounded by 250 supporters carrying brooms and banging drums in a demonstration in downtown Houston. Reisha Thomas, from the Texas Organizing Project, was arrested with out of state supporters: “I stand with janitors because they will raise the floor for all families. Throughout history people have engaged in protest and civil disobedience to stand up for civil liberties.”

Two days earlier, SEIU announced that the strike would spread to eight cities across the U.S. Janitors who are members of Local 1 will be fanning out across the country to establish picket lines in Washington, Minneapolis, Seattle, Boston, Oakland, and San Ramon, Calif. On July 18, Los Angeles and Denver joined in. Janitors in these cities have said that they will not cross the picket lines. SEIU represents more than 150,000 janitors in the United States.

In Chicago, where walkouts by union janitors are taking place, city officials are threatening to give jobs to non-union contractors at O’Hare International Airport. Sarah Hamilton, spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel said that the city is evaluating its options, but must award the contract to the lowest “responsible bidder.”

> The article above was written by Ann Montague.