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.”