We can do better for our janitors
Three years ago, when the economy was much weaker than it is today, the janitors who clean the office buildings of Houston, after a difficult struggle, won a contract with major commercial contractors. The agreement provided a gradual pay increase that gave janitors at least a minimum wage beginning at $7.85 an hour. After three years, most make $8.35 an hour plus health care for the worker – not the family.
While these gains were modest by many standards, they represented a significant improvement in the lives of janitors who work very hard, often late at night, to provide clean working conditions for Houstonians. The contracts were the means of survival for thousands of Houston families who depend on this employment, which often is a second job.
The hard-fought contracts expired last week. The cleaning contractors are refusing to agree to a livable wage increase. The janitors are asking for more working hours at $10 an hour. This is a fair increase when Houston’s economy is very healthy, except for those who are trying to live on $9,000 a year.
The concept of the common good should never be forgotten. All the benefits of a well-ordered society – food, medicine, education, work, decent housing, security, peace, justice and other human values – comprise the common good. The common good relates well to the American spirit of fairness and equal opportunity. It should never be the right of only those who are more fortunate. Every person should be able to share the common good available to all Houstonians. The janitors should not be forced to choose between buying food or medicine for their families, or between paying a doctor or rent. They will not be forced into these tragic decisions if a new contract provides a living wage for their labor.
The ethical principal of solidarity in the pursuit of the common good should move all people of goodwill to stand up for the janitors in their struggle with commercial contractors for increased wages and working hours.
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. The struggle to obtain a decent wage is not to make the union organizers look successful, but it is to help real people, good, hard-working people, survive in a city that has been abundantly blessed.
I wish the critics would get to know janitors like Robert Martinez, who shares an apartment with three roommates. He told me he has four children he is trying to support. He isn’t poor because he isn’t working hard. He sometimes has two jobs. He is poor because, like 5,200 janitors in Houston, he is paid less than $10,000 a year. Such a small wage is well-below the cost of living for a family in a city where the economy is among the best. It is no wonder that one of every four children in Houston lives in poverty.
Come on, Houston, we can do much better for our janitors. We did it three years ago when city and business leaders understood the special contribution janitors make to our great city. Now that the economy is much better, let us be in solidarity with the janitors for a fair and modest increase in their wages. Let Houston be known for doing what is only decent and right for our hard-working fellow citizens: justice for janitors.
Fiorenza is archbishop-emeritus of the Galveston-Houston Diocese.