Civil Rights Leaders Speak Out as Janitors Get Ready to Step Up Civil Disobedience in Houston

For Immediate Release: July 30, 2012

Contact: Paloma Martinez, (832) 493-4839, martinezp@seiu1.org

HOUSTON, TX—Civil rights and labor activists from all over the country will join Houston area activists this week for several days of widespread protests including peaceful civil disobedience to highlight the damaging impact that low wages have on our economy and our country and to support janitors who are entering their fourth week of an unfair labor practices strike.

The city’s janitors are paid just $9,000 annually, often clean 90+ toilets every night and work in some of the most exclusive real estate in the city.  So far the cleaning contractors they work for, such as New York based ABM, have rejected paying the janitors a higher wage, claiming that $9,000 a year is a good wage.

The following statement was issued by U.S. Representative Al Green (D-TX), U.S Representative Gene Green (D-TX), U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Wade Henderson of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Rev. William Lawson, State Senator Rodney Ellis, State Representative Jessica Farrar, State Representative Garnet Coleman, State Representative Senfronia Thompson, State Representative Armando Walle, State Representative Ana Hernandez Luna, City Councilor Larry Green, Sissy Farenthold, a former State Legislator and international human rights activist, Johnny N. Mata, from the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice.

“Our country is engaged in a struggle over our most basic values—that hard work should be rewarded with fair pay.  Those values are being challenged as the gap between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the country grows wider and leads to the creation of a second class of workers who are locked into poverty. Nowhere is this gap more stark than Houston, where janitors work hard mopping, dusting, scrubbing thousands of offices each and every day for some of the wealthiest building owners in the world yet are paid so little that many live in poverty.

As during the 2006 Houston janitors’ strike, ‘Freedom Flyers’ from around the country are coming to Houston to promote workers’ rights, civil liberties, and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream. We applaud the bravery and courage of these janitors, who will be risking arrest to fight for a better future for all workers. It’s through struggles like these that we can bring fairness back to our economy and prosperity back to our country.”

The Houston commercial real estate market is the best performing market in the US in terms of demand. A robust energy sector has driven up demand in the real estate market and lowered vacancy rates below the national average.  However, despite the health of the commercial real estate industry, Houston office cleaners are some of the lowest paid in the nation—most are paid $8.35 an hour or less.  Out of town cleaning contractors like New York based ABM pay Janitors working in cities with less healthy markets and lower rental rates more.  For example, janitors working in Detroit where vacancy rates are 6.3 percent higher, and rental rates are more than five dollars lower janitors make $11.17 an hour.

Background:

  • Mayor Parker of Houston came out in strong support of the janitors saying “I am calling on the contracting companies to go back to the negotiating table.  Their unwillingness to talk has left the union with no other choice but civil disobedience.  That is not good for the City of Houston or our economy and it is not how we do business in Houston.  We work hard, we work together and we treat each other fairly.  The union has made good-faith offers.  Now it’s time for the janitorial contractors to sit back down at the table to work out an agreement that is fair and just.”
  • The janitors’ union contract expired on May 31st. While in bargaining with their employers, janitors asked for a modest raise from $8.35 per hour to $10 per hour over three years. Building owners and contractors responded by offering a raise of just $0.50 to be phased in over five years—an almost certain promise that janitors will continue to live in poverty. When janitors refused to accept this offer, they were met with harassment and intimidation by their employers. This prompted workers to call a city-wide strike against cleaning contractors on July 11th in response to unfair treatment.

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