Houston building owners are up in arms at the very thought that the people that spend all night away from their families cleaning their buildlings should earn more than $20 per day.

Janitors in Houston went on strike yesterday for higher pay, more guaranteed work hours and health insurance. The 5,300 janitors, who currently earn $5.50 per hour, were organized by the Service Employees International Union last year in what was the largest union organizing campaign in the South in years. The janitors want their wages raised to $8.50 an hour, along with longer hours and health insurance. Currently they earn the lowest wages and benefits of any major city in the United States, according to the union. 

Contract talks for more than 5,300 janitors ended last Tuesday after months of negotiations with Houston's five largest cleaning companies (ABM, OneSource, GCA, Sanitors, and Pritchard.)  The union is targeting only a few sites at a time. 500 janitors walked off the job yesterday, and more are expected to join as the days go on.

Flora Aguilar, 51, said she'll rely on the fund and babysitting work to get by during the strike. "I'm prepared to be on strike until they take us seriously and negotiate, until we have a contract," she said.

Aguilar's story appeared on SEIU's webpage:

Flora Aguilar brings home $418 a month working as a janitor in a downtown Houston office building. Her monthly bills are more than her income: $425 for rent, $30 gas, $44 phone and $10 to pay the bus fare to take her to work. Her husband's income as a construction worker makes up the difference. 


Flora was once forced to care for herself when she was injured on the job. One night during her shift, she cut her wrist while changing the toilet paper. She reported it to her supervisor, who never called an ambulance or offered to take her to the hospital – Flora was just supposed to cure herself. She did, and as a result she has lost feeling in her wrist.

Concepcion Landeros doesn't have enought money to go to the doctor 

“and it’s a real problem because I’m a diabetic.

In fact, Concepcion regularly misses doctors’ appointments because she cannot afford to go to them.  “It’s a constant worry for me that my medications are running out, that I need to see the doctor and I can’t,” Concepción says.  “It’s also a big problem because of my daughters.  Joana has problems with her teeth and my youngest daughter feels pain in her mouth – but I can’t afford to take them to the dentist,” she says.  “It makes me feel terrible that I can’t provide my daughters with what they need.” 

Houston employers are whining up a storm about the strike:

A statement from the Houston Area Service Contractors Association, which includes ABM Janitorial Services, GCA Services, OneSource and Sanitors Services of Texas, as well as Pritchard Industries Southwest, said they were not happy about the strike.

"We are extremely disappointed that the union elected this strike action particularly since there are a number of open issues to resolve. The union interrupted the discussion of non-economic items recently with the presentation of an economic proposal that called for wage and benefit increases in excess of 70 percent," it said.

"In our view, these economic demands are extreme, particularly since building owners and managers are continually faced with competitive pressures and utility, property tax and other increases," according to the contractors.

The union's first target is Hines Interests, a major property manager in Houston and other cities. Hines has contracts with three of the largest cleaning contractors in Houston, although Hines is not the janitors' employer. According to Cornell University labor professor Richard C. Hurd,

SEIU is focusing on Hines, which already has come out in favor of higher wages and benefits, because that's where it has the most leverage.

"I'm sure they're exerting escalating pressure on the other building owners to fall in line," he said.

It's essential for the union to get the building owners on board because they're the ones who control the budgets, he said. Once building owners agree to pay higher wages and benefits, they won't have the incentive to find cheaper cleaning companies.

SEIU has run similar campaigns in other cities across the country, including Miami earlier this year, Boston in 2002, and Los Angeles and Chicago in 2000.

The politics and legal issues surrounding the strike are also interesting. Houston Mayor Bill White, who had supported the janitors' organizing efforts, was attempting to limit the strikers' ability to protest during times when it can have the biggest impact, requiring permits for sound amplification devices, parading through streets and gathering in public parks. The restrictions were allegedly to protect public safety. But yesterday, U.S. District Judge Gray Miller issued an injunction ordering the city of Houston not to enforce the ordinances.

The union and its members have a lot riding on winning this strike. When the janitors won the organizing campaign, labor observers noted its significance. Steven Greenhouse in the New York Times declared the organizing campaign a tremendous victory of historic proportions:

In an era when unions typically face frustration and failure in attracting workers in the private sector, the Service Employees International Union is bringing in 5,000 janitors from several companies at once. With work force experts saying that unions face a slow death unless they can figure out how to organize private-sector workers in big bunches, labor leaders are looking to the Houston campaign as a model.

The service employees, which led a breakaway of four unions from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. last summer, has used several unusual tactics in Houston, among them lining up the support of religious leaders, pension funds and the city's mayor, Bill White, a Democrat. Making the effort even more unusual has been the union's success in a state that has long been hostile to labor.

"It's the largest unionization campaign in the South in years," said Julius Getman, a labor law professor at the University of Texas. "Other unions will say, 'Yes, it can be done here.' "

Another reason that winning this strike is important is that it's a first contract, always the hardest to win. According to Cornell University researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner, more than a year after voting for union representation, workers are unable to negotiate initial collective bargaining agreements 32 percent of the time.  The Employee Free Choice Act, which I wrote about last May, addresses the problem of first contracts (in addition to card check organizing agreements instead of the traditional "secret ballot" election):

The Employee Free Choice Act provides that either employers or employees may request mediation of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) if no agreement on a first contract has been reached after 90 days of bargaining. If the FMCS is unable to bring the parties to agreement after 30 days of mediation, the dispute must be referred to binding arbitration.

Finally, as we approach the mid-term elections with visions of control of the House and Senate dancing in our heads, blogger Nathan Newman explained why the victory was much more significant than only 5,000 new members sounds, particularly because it took place in the underunionized (and increasingly Republican) South.

Just think of the Houston janitors as a beachhead in hostile territory. We can sometime look at the numbers and forget how significant even a small union presence can be in an area with very little organizing at all. Do these numbers– janitors pay dues of roughly $20 per month, or a bit over $200 per year. Multiply by 5000 and you suddenly have an organization with $1 million per year to promote organizing and political mobilization in the Houston area.

Add a few more around the region and you've added what will automatically become major new political and social institutions in regions that now lack them. Just by existing, the Houston janitors will be an example to other workers that they can organize and they can win even in the South– a key message for any hope of labor revival.

So yes, 5000 Houston janitors is a tremendous victory of historic proportions.

Win this campaign and let a few more Houstons bloom, and Democrats won't have to write off much of the South anymore.

Jordan Barab keeps track of who's been naughty and who's been nice in the world of workers' rights at Confined Space.

Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab