Last week I reported that janitors in Houston reached an impasse in their month-long effort to renegotiate their expiring contract with cleaning contractors. The janitors are currently paid an hourly wage of $8.35 and earn an average of $8,684 annually. They seek a raise to $10 an hour over the next three years, but the contractors offered just a $0.50 pay raise phased in over five years.
In response, the janitors began asking building owners and tenants to intervene on their behalf—especially since the cleaning contractors claimed that those corporations were unwilling to cover higher wages, so their hands were tied.
Indeed 3,200 janitors in the city clean the offices of some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world. Surely these powerbrokers could influence the outcome of any negotiations? Yet despite janitors sharing their personal stories of struggling in poverty and asking for help from the likes of Chevron, ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo, Shell, JPMorgan Chase and real estate giants like Crescent Real Estate Equities (a subsidiary of Barclay’s) and Hines Real Estate, no party stepped forward as hoped.
“I went to speak to the owner of my building, Crescent, and the only response we got was the chief of security saying ‘I don’t care,’ ” said janitor Maria Teresa Lopez. “We know we are not important to these cleaning companies. They know we live paycheck to paycheck, yet our paychecks are often late by days.”
Additionally, janitors began reporting threats and harassment at the workplace as organizing efforts ramped up. So on Tuesday the janitors called a strike at the nine office buildings at Greenway Plaza. Charges of unfair labor practices were filed with the National Labor Relations Board. At another site, eleven janitors who work for New York–based cleaning contractor Pritchard also went on strike to protest unfair labor practices and were notified that they wouldn’t be allowed to return to work—in apparent violation of federal law. As of yesterday evening, the strike was scheduled to expand to two more buildings, including Wells Fargo Tower, where janitors report that the cleaning contractors are interfering with their right to engage in union activity. SEIU Local 1 spokesperson Paloma Martinez told me that the strike could now “move to any part of town, to several buildings or a whole section of town.”
“It was the threats that pushed the janitors over the edge,” says Martinez. “Not only are you trying to survive day-to-day, trying to just put food on the table, but then you go into a caustic environment at work just because you’re trying to make your workplace better.”
In contrast to the building owners and tenants, the faith community in Houston has taken a strong stand to support the workers. It began on Sunday with an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle by Joseph Fiorenza, archbishop-emeritus of the Galveston-Houston Diocese.