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Houston, TX—SEIU Local 1 members and staff would like to extend their deepest condolences to State Senator Mario Gallegos’ family during this difficult time. As a state legislator for 22 years, Senator Gallegos stood up for the voiceless and most vulnerable in our communities. During the Houston janitors’ strike this past summer, Senator Gallegos walked side by side with janitors and their families in support of good jobs for our state’s most under-served neighborhoods.
“In addition to being a great man, Senator Mario Gallegos was a tireless champion for the Hispanic community. Even in declining health, Senator Gallegos worked to block discriminatory anti-immigrant policies that sought to further divide our communities. His contributions to our great state cannot be overstated and will never be forgotten,” said Elsa Caballero, State Director for SEIU Local 1 Texas
When I was in college, I suffered from a ruptured brain aneurysm. Fortunately, I had health insurance through school and got the care I needed. After I graduated, I was denied insurance by every major carrier because of my preexisting condition. Even the state program was too expensive for me to afford.
But when Obama helped pass the Affordable Care Act, health insurance companies could no longer deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions. Now I have good health insurance with affordable premiums. I’m able to go see my doctor without worrying if I can afford it.
I want to thank President Obama for standing up for people like me, so I am volunteering with SEIU Local 1 to help re-elect President Barack Obama.
You can help too! Volunteer with SEIU Local 1 to make sure OUR voices are heard this election. Call the Member Resource Center: 877-233-8880.
Houston — After a hot summer of mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, rallies, almost 70 arrests, prayer vigils and marches, Houston janitors — who had been without a contract since May 31 and went on strike in July — won double what the contractors had initially offered and kept the benefits that had been threatened. The deal was reached with most of Houston’s major cleaning contractors, but union officials are still negotiating with one final contractor.
On Aug. 11, the janitors, represented by Service Employees Local 1, unanimously approved a new contract and celebrated a historic victory.
Initially, the cleaning contractors offered the workers, who are among the lowest paid in the country, only a measly 50-cents-per-hour wage increase, the same increase now being offered janitors in San Francisco who are threatening to strike. According to the union, the new contract will raise wages 12 percent over the next four years. (seiu.org, Aug. 10)
Houston janitors have been organized only since 2006, after waging a strong four-week, rare-for-Houston strike for union recognition. Before this, the 5,000 unorganized office janitors in Houston earned only $20 a day and had absolutely no benefits. In 2006, their pay doubled and they gained access to affordable health care.
In the U.S., 11.8 percent of wage and salary workers were members of a union in 2011, but union members were only 5.4 percent of the work force in Texas. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Texas had about one-fourth as many union members as New York in 2011, despite having 2.3 million more wage and salary employees.
A struggle of rich versus poor
The cleaning contractors represented Exxon Mobil, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Shell Oil, some of the richest entities in the U.S., but wanted to give janitors only 50 cents over five years.
According to Forbes magazine, for the last two years Houston has enjoyed more growth in the number of “High Net Worth Individuals” — people with at least $1 million in investable assets (primary homes don’t count) — than any other U.S. city.
The SEIU says the inequality is clear in Houston, where residential segregation by income is the worst in the country. In Texas, the U.S. Department of Labor reported, more than half a million workers make only minimum wage or less, tying Texas with Mississippi for the highest proportion of minimum wage jobs in the country.
Local and national support for the janitors was crucial to their victory. It ranged from the mayor of Houston to Occupy Houston activists, U.S. House representatives to Houston religious leaders and the NAACP. The Houston Chronicle editorialized support for the janitors.
After the janitors voted in favor of the new contract, Adrianna Vasquez, a bargaining committee member and janitor who works at Chase Tower, said: “Today we proved that when workers join together, we have strength. This is a huge victory for janitors and so many workers. With this new contract, our families can live a little better.”
By Pat Barcas Staff Writer
HOUSTON, Texas — Houston area SEIU janitors that have been on strike since July 10 reached a tentative agreement Aug. 8 with cleaning contractors that raises wages 12 percent over four years and beats back a key demand of the contractors that would have significantly weakened the union in Houston. “Today we proved that when workers join together, we have strength. This is a huge victory for janitors and so many workers,” said Adriana Vasquez, a bargaining committee member and janitor who works at Chase Tower in Houston. “With this new contract, our families can live a little better.” Cleaning contractors had been insisting on a provision that would have allowed them to underbid union standards in any building covered by the contract, a move that would have effectively reduced wages and benefits for thousands of janitors. However, both parties agreed to a compromise that protects wages and benefit gains that janitors have won since 2006 and allows the contractors to bid competitively in smaller buildings and in few outlying sub-markets. The changes will not adversely affect union janitors. Janitors had been making only $8.35 per hour, and cleaning contractors had initially offered only a 50 cent raise over five years. According to the agreement, janitors’ wages will increase 12 percent to $9.35 per hour over four years, which is double the contractors’ initial proposal. The agreement was reached with Houston’s largest cleaning contractors. “We made progress here in Houston and the janitors’ victory brings hope to security officers, airport workers and others trapped by poverty wages” said Tom Balanoff, President of SEIU Local 1. “Our economy is broken and unless we do something to turn low wage jobs into good jobs, the middle class will be the great disappearing act of the 21st century.” The strike came at a time when the country is in the midst of massive public protest over the increasing inequality between the wealthiest one percent and the rest of society. The U.S. economy has grown by more than 80 percent in the past 30 years, but a majority of those gains in wealth have gone to the richest one percent of Americans while income for 95 percent of American households has either stayed the same or fallen since 1970. SEIU says that inequality is clear here in Houston where residential segregation by income is the worst in the country. In Texas, more than half a million workers make the minimum wage or less, tying Texas with Mississippi for the highest proportion of minimum wage jobs in the country.
Pat Barcas’ e-mail address is email@example.com.
Greg Kaufmann on August 17, 2012
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 United States 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 now 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.
Over the past several weeks, thousands of Houston janitors represented by the Service Employees International Union have been on strike in a quest for better pay in their new contracts. Both the janitors and their employers used the tools at their disposal to engage in a drawn-out negotiation process. There were sit-ins, strikes, replacement workers, protests and political pressure, but in the end both sides came to the table and negotiated a compromise. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
The janitors got a $1-per-hour increase (nearly 12 percent) in maximum pay over the next four years – less than the $1.65-per-hour raise they wanted, but higher than the 50-cent increase the cleaning companies initially offered.
But the real story is that this happened in an anti-union, cheap labor state like Texas. No one could be forced to join a union. No one could be forced to come to an agreement. But workers joined and employers negotiated, and the end result was a fair settlement.
The final contract did not come without painful compromise. It only applies to office buildings of more than 200,000 square feet, which will leave some janitors working in smaller buildings without the higher wage. But the quest for a perfect outcome did not stand in the way of a good deal. On Saturday the janitors approved the agreement by acclamation.
The narrative about labor in America these days seems to be that either private sector unions are failing in the face of global competition or that public sector unions are exploiting tax dollars. But in this case, Houston was the setting for a story that doesn’t get told much these days. In a time of corporate success, workers wanted a bit more for their labor. So they banded together, drew attention to their cause and put pressure on management. Now, once the raise is fully implemented, the top paid janitors will be able to make $9.35-per-hour instead of $8.35, putting Houston’s janitor compensation more in line with other major cities.
America has always been a land of opportunity, and it needs to stay that way. The breadwinner-homemaker model is no longer dominant in American families, and getting a well-paying job right out of high school is a thing of a past. But even low-wage jobs should offer workers the ability not to get rich themselves, but to at least give their children a chance to climb the ladder. It’s important that parents have time to check homework, provide moral guidance or prepare healthy meals. That’s difficult when parents have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. It isn’t merely about ensuring that workers benefit from the sweat of their brow or even building a strong consumer base to drive the economy, but providing a bedrock for families. And every dollar earned from hard work is a dollar that doesn’t have to come from charity or welfare.
But at a time when we so often see the rich getting richer and the poor scraping by, we’re glad to see a proper exercise in labor negotiation.
Houston is an economic powerhouse, and a rising tide should lift all boats.
After weeks of striking and demonstrating, Houston janitors unanimously voted Saturday to ratify a contract that would increase some members’ wages by $1 over a four-year period.
About 400 janitors with the Service Employees International Union supported a contract negotiated with six of the seven companies that employ the union janitorsThe contract will gradually increase workers’ pay from $8.35 an hour to $9.35 an hour. The previous contract ended on May 31.
SEUI spokeswoman Paloma Martinez said the contract was a fair solution for both the union and the cleaning companies
“This is a huge victory,” she said.
Sixta Gonzalez, 67, said she voted for the contract because workers deserved to keep their benefits. “Every time we go into a nice place, the floors shine, but no one ever asks who waxes them,” she said.
Maria Lopez, 41,said she voted in favor of the contract to help raise minimum salaries across the city. “The salaries here in Houston are miserable,” she said.
While the ratified contact gives most of the workers a raise, some janitors may not benefit and could even earn less. Janitors who work in buildings of less than 200,000 square feet can expect to earn $7.25 an hour.
Adriana Vasquez, an SEIU representative who helped to negotiate the deal, said the majority of the 3,2000 workers will benefit from the new contract.
“I didn’t want any one of them to be left out,” she said.
Vasquez said the negotiations did not allow for all workers to benefit because of the cleaning companies’ inflexibility.
“I tried to put myself in everyone’s shoes,” she said.
Eligible workers in buildings with less than 200,000 square feet could gradually move to larger buildings over time, she said.