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Houston, U.S.A. — The night of July 11, following a month of protests and one-day strikes across the city of Houston, hundreds of Houston janitors walked off the job in the first city-wide janitors’ strike since 2006. The janitors have called the strike to protest employer’s malicious conduct. With hundreds of striking workers already rallying in downtown Houston, the strike is expected to escalate and could possibly spread to other cities.
Cleaning contractors have begun using healthcare coverage as another tactic to intimidate and threaten workers. Three contractors – Pritchard, Aztec and Eurest – have stopped making contributions to the workers’ health and welfare fund. Meanwhile, two others – GCA and ISS – have stopped withholding worker contributions to the fund, a potential indication that they too plan on not contributing to the health and welfare fund. The net result of this activity has been a sense of panic among the workers that their healthcare coverage is in peril. This morning, SEIU Local 1 filed unfair labor practice charges against each of the cleaning contractors.
Janitors have called a city-wide strike to protest the employer’s conduct in response to workers’ attempt to improve wages and benefits. Janitors kicked off their strike with picket lines outside key downtown buildings last night.
The janitors’ campaign has already generated a great deal of local and national support, including activist and actor Danny Glover, Congressman Al Green (D-TX) and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, among others. Last month, Houston janitor Adriana Vasquez confronted JP Morgan Chase CEO on Capitol Hill, asking him why he denied the janitors cleaning his buildings a living wage, garnering broad national attention.
“Enough is enough,” said Maria Lopez who cleans the Greenway Plaza complex, owned Crescent/Barclays, in Houston. “I work hard every day, cleaning 88 toilets across 11 floors, to support my daughter– I am striking today to stand up for my right to fight for a better life.”
“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,” stated Elsa Caballero, Texas State Director SEIU Local 1. “At a moment when our country has begun to confront the staggering implications of income inequality, Houston’s janitors are on the frontline, fighting for justice.”
Houston janitors clean the offices of some of the richest corporations in the world, including profitable corporations like Chevron, Hines, Shell Oil, and JP Morgan. Despite record profits and inflated CEO pay, janitors who clean Houston’s office buildings are paid less than $9,000 a year—less than half the poverty level. And janitors are not alone. About 1 in 5 workers in the Houston area is paid $10 an hour or less, and rates of poverty and food insecurity in the city are steadily climbing. Meanwhile, Houston-based Fortune 500 companies saw their profits increase 30% in the past year.
“I appeal to all people of good will to be in solidarity with the janitors as they seek a modest increase of pay. I appeal to the owners of these magnificent buildings in downtown Houston, the Galleria and Greenway Plaza areas to take up the cause of those who clean their buildings,” Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, Archbishop Emeritus of Galveston-Houston, said at a recent prayer vigil for the janitors. “Above all, human dignity must be honored and respected as much as we would respect any worker contributing to the welfare of Houston.”
The Houston commercial real estate market is the best performing market in the US in terms of demand. Average commercial rental rates in Houston are higher than rates in Chicago, for example, where janitors are paid more than 3 times much annually as Houston janitors. Even in Detroit—where vacancy rates are higher and rental rates are lower than Houston—janitors are paid more than $2 an hour more than Houston janitors.
“Let’s be clear, we will not stand by in silence while the hard-working men and women who clean some of Houston’s most exclusive, most profitable real estate continue to make poverty wages,” continued Caballero.
Image Courtsy of SEIU International