Solidarity is a Wildfire: Houston Janitors’ Strike Spreads
July 18, 2012
The one percent is catching fire in the form of an expanding strike by the janitors who clean the buildings of some of the largest corporations in the U.S. Hundreds of janitors in Houston who walked off the job last week are being joined by hundreds more this week as picket lines extend to eight cities across the country.
The janitors – employed by contractors to clean office buildings for companies like Exxon Mobile, Shell Oil, and JP Morgan Chase – are striking against unfair labor practices. They are also demanding an end to poverty wages in a city recently named by Forbes as the number one city for millionaires.
SEIU, which represents the janitors, reported in a press release this morning,
Tomorrow, the Houston janitors’ unfair labor practices strike will spread to eight cities across the United States. Janitors, who are members of SEIU Local 1, will fan out across the country to establish picket lines against their janitorial contractors in Washington, Minneapolis, Seattle, Boston, San Ramon and Oakland. On Thursday, janitors in Los Angeles and Denver will also join the strike. Janitors in these cities have indicated that they will not cross the picket lines, thereby expanding the strike to key real estate in new cities.
The ULP strike that began last Tuesday is the first city-wide work stoppage by Houston janitors since 2006. Their contract expired on May 31 after asking for a modest raise from $8.35 to $10 per hour during negotiations. But the building owners and contractors insist that a five cent raise over five years is enough for the workers.
The bosses evidently believe the workers belong below the poverty line. But instead of just pushing brooms, the janitors pushed back. As a result they were met with harrassment and intimidation. Workers responded by calling for a city-wide strike on July 11. Three of the companies have retaliated futher against the building cleaners, illegally imposing unilateral changes by cutting off contributions to health and welfare funds.
The strike is now in its second week and includes more than 400 janitors at 18 different buildings in Houston, a city with glaring income inequality. While one in five workers in the city make less than $10 an hour, Houston leads the nation in annual growth for millionaires. According to SEIU, the city’s largest employers raked in more than $178 billion in profits last year. Union janitors on the other hand are stuck working part-time schedules and make less than $9,000 annually.
Labor journalist Josh Eidelson at In These Times explains how SEIU is using sympathy pickets to win justice for janitors in Houston:
In some cities, SEIU janitors employed by some of the same companies have “conscience clauses” in their contracts, protecting their rise to honor picket lines by refusing work. That means that if a striking Houston worker traveled to such a city and began picketing the same company there, the workers inside could walk off the job, effectively spreading the strike throughout the country.
A similar use of the sympathy strike tactic was used last month by sanitation workers who put up picket lines throughout the country in support of their brothers and sisters who were locked out by Republic Services/Allied Waste in Indiana. Solidarity proved successful when the company ended the lockout and began negotiating with the Indiana workers at the end of June.
Solidarity among SEIU janitors may soon bring a similar victory to them as well. The stakes are high in Houston. Holding the line far and wide could mean the difference between a hard loss for workers and a heavy blow against the one percent.