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This Week in Poverty: Here's to the Houston Janitors | The Nation

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Greg Kaufmann

Poverty in America: people, politics and policy.

This Week in Poverty: Here's to the Houston Janitors

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.

Conversation With Tianna Gaines-Turner

I’ve had the opportunity this year to get to know many participants in Witnesses to Hunger—a project in which people living in poverty use photographs and testimonials to advocate for change at the local, state and national levels.

Tianna Gaines-Turner is a Witness and a friend living in Philadelphia with her husband and children. She works at Drexel University’s School of Public Health and as a homecare worker for an elderly person. I spoke with her this week about what she’s been seeing since Pennsylvania eliminated its General Assistance program and nearly 70,000 disabled people lost their sole source of income. Our conversation led to a much broader discussion about the need to change how society perceives and helps people who are struggling.

One of Tianna’s projects through Drexel is operating a “Witness-to-Witness” peer mentoring program two days a week, open to anyone. She helps people get the food, energy assistance, healthcare, school supplies, community legal services and housing services they need.

“We look at everybody as a human being reaching out for assistance—that’s what it’s about at the end of the day,” Tianna told me. “It’s people treating people as a human being and not a docket number, not a case number and not a caseload.”

Tianna reported that since the elimination of General Assistance—the “safety net of last resort” for 68,000 Pennsylvanians (90 percent of whom are temporarily or permanently disabled)—she has seen a lot more people in need of food or utility assistance. She also said in low-income neighborhoods they are seeing “more home invasions, more robberies in broad daylight and increased street violence.”

“Me and my other Witnesses knew this was going to happen,” she said. “It’s not just about General Assistance—we have schools closing left and right, libraries being closed. Some of my neighbors in the community feel that we’ve come to a point where you have to be in your house before the sun goes down to keep yourself safe.”

Legal aid lawyer Michael Froehlich of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia told me he is also seeing a marked increase in desperation.

“We have received over eighty phone calls in the past few weeks from people who have lost General Assistance,” he said. “Many of them are being evicted or having their gas or electric shut off. Almost everyone I have spoken to is disabled. As bad as it is now, I’m really worried about this winter when it gets too cold to safely be on the street.”

In recent days, Tianna has worked with a newly homeless young man, who—when asked where he wanted to be in five years—said, “I don’t want to be dead or in jail.” She also spoke with a young woman and her partner, who both work, are raising their five children, and caring for her parents. They didn’t know how they could continue to take care of the woman’s mother, who now has cancer.

“It definitely can get to you—just hearing the stories, or sitting across the table looking at someone crying, and their children are sitting in the same room,” said Tianna. “Or maybe their children are disheveled in a way that you know they may have eaten something, but clearly not enough to give them the nutrition that they need. And then just speaking to the different people who are homeless right now. How can I not think about where that young homeless man is now? Is he okay? That’s the hard part—and we have to protect ourselves.”

Part of protecting herself involves running a “Safety, Emotions, Loss and Future” (SELF) group on Thursday mornings that many of her Witness sisters also participate in. The SELF group is also confidential and open to the public.

“It helps us to be able to talk about the things we hear and see, and the horrible stories and trauma that continue to go on from generation to generation,” said Tianna. “It’s a safe environment to speak about healthy ways to be better parents, better people to ourselves, and work through traumas. And it allows us to go back to our communities and let people know you can move beyond trauma and have a healthy life. Because that’s what the work of me and my Witness sisters is all about: breaking the generational cycle of hunger and poverty that continues to go on in low-income communities.”

The work Tianna is engaged in definitely makes her angry at the way low-income people are being portrayed in the current political climate.

“They always try to say, ‘Oh, they’re trying to scam; they’re telling a lie; they’re not really hungry; they’re just lazy, sitting back and waiting on the system,’” she said. “Have they ever sat down and had a conversation with someone on SSI or Medicaid? Have they sat down with anyone like a Witness to Hunger—who has overcome so much? Smart, educated people—who just want to sit down to a decent meal; earn a decent income from their jobs; have college savings accounts for their children; and just live a normal life? What’s normal? For no child to go to bed hungry, no senior to worry about how they are going to feed themselves, no church to worry about the overflow of people coming to get a hot meal and a warm place to sleep. But if we don’t make our voices heard now then things are not going to change.”

Update on “Talk About Poverty” (#TalkPoverty)

Good news: the Obama campaign has said it will soon respond to the first five questions—from Peter Edelman—in TheNation.com’s new “Talk About Poverty: Questions for Obama and Romney” series. Not too much luck with the Romney campaign so far, but we’ll keep trying.

Also, many of you have been actively tweeting the first post using #TAP as requested, and it’s greatly appreciated. The only problem is this: turns out I’m an idiot—#TAP was a terrible choice. It’s generic and brings up way too much spam. So, The Nation’s excellent community editor, Annie Shields, suggests that we instead use #TalkPoverty. She was kind enough not to add, “Duh, Greg.”

So keep tweeting, #TalkPoverty. And thanks—because the only way we get them to talk poverty is if we demand that they talk poverty.

Get Involved

Tell Costco: Support Palermo’s Pizza Workers
Put Child Care on the Map
Be Careful What you Cut
House Resolution opposing SNAP cuts
Protect Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit
Congratulate Candy Crowley & Join the Debate!
Hear Us: Giving Voice and Visibility to Homeless Youths

Clips

Investing in Microenterprise is a Wise Economic Growth Strategy,” Sheila Bapat

For Prosperity Economics to Work We Must Leverage America’s Growing Diversity,” Angela Glover Blackwell

Timeline: Cutting Poverty and the Federal Deficit Is Possible,” Sophie Feldman and Melissa Boteach

Inmates Convicted as Juveniles Could Get Reprieve,” Hannah Dreier

Poverty Line Doesn’t Begin to Cover Those Who Need Help,” Deborah Flateman (letter)

Kinship Caregivers Gaining in Numbers,” Kate Giammarise

How to Launch a Mass Movement for Economic Justice,” William Greider

So What Is ‘Sequestration’? And What Do These Cuts Mean for Low-Income Families?” Alan Houseman

In Some States, Poverty Doesn’t Mean Poor Enough to Get Health Care,” Carla Johnson and Kelli Kennedy

Paul Ryan’s Biggest Budget Cuts are to Medicaid, Not Medicare,” Suzy Khimm

Yes, Poor Families Do Have ‘Skin in the Game’,” Kathy Mulady

Social Security Does More Than Just Protect the Elderly,” Tim Price

Everything You Need to Know About Chairman Ryan’s Budget,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Happy Birthday, Social Security,” Kathy Ruffing

Just the Facts: Obama’s Welfare-to-Work Plan,” Debbie Weinstein

Studies and Other Resources

How Raising the Federal Minimum Wage Would Help Working Families and Give the Economy a Boost,” Doug Hall and David Cooper, Economic Policy Institute. Increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.80 per hour would give more than 28 million workers a raise while generating approximately 100,000 new jobs over three years. Hall and Cooper show that the raised wage would generate almost $40 billion in increased wages for workers still reeling from the effects of the recession.

The Economic Impact a Minimum-Wage Increase Would Have in Your State,” Economic Policy Institute.

The Crisis Continues: Pennsylvania’s Medicaid Program Draws National Scrutiny Over Children’s Enrollment Plunge,” Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. Pennsylvania’s Medicaid enrollment has declined by 91,400 children in just ten months. The federal government has asked Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW) to explain the Medicaid eligibility procedures it has been using in recent months, writing that “it appears that it may have been improper to terminate Medicaid coverage” in a number of cases. DPW has not responded to date. This Week in Poverty previously reported on the state’s irresponsible actions with regard to children and Medicaid here.

Event

Community Action Partnership’s 2012 Annual Convention (August 19–22 at the Hilton New York). More than 1100 human services professionals from Community Action Agencies serving low-income communities across the country will attend. The convention features 100-plus workshops focused on a variety of topics affecting low-income individuals, including: job creation, housing and homelessness prevention, Head Start, economic development, and asset building. If you can’t be there, you can follow @CAPartnership and #PartnershsipNYC.

Vital Statistics

50 percent of the jobs in the US pay less than $34,000 a year (Economic Policy Institute).

25 percent of the jobs in the US pay below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually (Economic Policy Institute).

Median wealth, single black women: $100.

Median wealth, single Latino women: $120.

Median wealth, single white women: $41,500.

US poverty (less than $22,314 for a family of four): 46 million people, 15.1 percent of population.

Poverty rates for minorities: approximately 27 percent of African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians, versus 10 percent of whites.

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 35 percent of Latino children.

Number of children in poverty receiving cash aid: one in five.

Poverty rate for people in female-headed families: 42 percent.

Children under age 5 in female-headed families in poverty: 58 percent (US Census Bureau).

Single mothers with incomes under $25,000: 50 percent.

Single mothers working: 67 percent.

Total number of US children under age 18: 72 million.

Number of US children in low-income families (less than $44,700 for family of four): 31.9 million.

Deep poverty (less than $11,157 for a family of four): 20.5 million people, 6.7 percent of population. Up from 12.6 million in 2000.

Increase in deep poverty, 1976-2010: doubled—3.3 percent of population to 6.7 percent.

Americans with no income other than food stamps: 6 million, 2 percent of population.

Twice the poverty level (less than $44,700 for a family of four): 103 million people, roughly 1 in 3 Americans.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Employment rate for people with disabilities, 2010: 18.6 percent.

Employment rate for people with no disabilities, 2010: 63.5 percent.

People ages 50 and over at risk of hunger, daily: 9 million.

Quotes of the Week

“There is a pervasive and unfortunate view that poor people do not want to work or help themselves. This is just not true. To change this perception, we must give those living in poverty a face and a voice.”
      —California Senator Carol Liu, 21st District, on “Road to Resilience Tour: Overcoming Hunger and Homelessness”

“It really galls me how you can have one person on public assistance do one thing wrong and they make it sound like everybody’s doing it.”
      —Tianna Gaines-Turner, Witness to Hunger

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter. Images of Houston janitor strikers courtesy of Izabela Miltko. Image of Tianna courtesy of Tianna Gaines-Turner, Witnesses to Hunger.

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