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It’s Never Enough’: Houston’s Janitors Fight for a Living Wage

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PHOTO PROVIDED BY HERNAN TRUJILLO
Hernan Trujillo

Hernan Trujillo doesn’t have a cell phone. He doesn’t have a car. Getting to and from his two jobs takes about two hours on Metro buses, if he doesn’t miss any connections and the traffic is light. From 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., Trujillo washes dishes at a restaurant. From 5 p.m. until 9:30 p.m., he cleans more than 200 elevator landings at Reliant Energy Plaza, a skyscraper in downtown Houston. He lives in a two-bedroom apartment with four other people and spends much of his money supporting his parents, both of whom are sick and uninsured. His mother needs a knee replacement, but can’t afford it, so Trujillo pays for her pain medication. He is 29.

“Even if you work two or three jobs, it’s never enough,” he says.

Trujillo is one of 3,200 janitors represented by Local 1, the Houston-area janitors’ union organized by the Service Employees International Union. You can see him here getting knocked down by a police horse during a protest last Thursday in front of the JP Morgan Chase building. Local 1 has protested daily since mid-May, when negotiations over their new contract broke down. The janitors work for seven companies that provide cleaning services to some of Houston’s largest companies, including Exxon and Chevron. Their contract expired at the end of May.

Houston’s janitors unionized in 2006, before which they made minimum wage. Unionized Houston janitors now earn $8.35 an hour. Few of them are allowed to work 40 hours a week, so the average local janitor makes less than $9,000 a year. (The federal poverty line for one person is $11,170.) They want a $1.65 raise over the next three years, which would bring their hourly pay to $10. Their employers have offered a 50-cent raise over five years. Paloma Martinez, of the SEIU, calls that “insulting.”

“The industry could do so much better,” she says. “Fifty cents isn’t going to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Martinez points out that in other cities, such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, the real estate market is worse than Houston’s—vacancy rates are higher and rents are lower—but their janitors make between $10.25 and $15.45, according to 2012 first-quarter data. Those janitors are also regularly allowed 40-hour work weeks, dramatically increasing their annual pay.

Local 1 held three limited strikes on June 5, 6, and 7, protesting alleged unfair labor practices, intimidation, and threats. Eleven workers were replaced after a one-day strike in Greenspoint, which the union says is illegal. They plan to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

None of the negotiators for the seven cleaning companies returned calls for comment.

Houston’s janitors are not alone in their struggle for a living wage. The asterisk to Perry’s much-crowed-over job creation is that many of those jobs paid very little and offered no benefits. Almost 10 percent of Texas jobs pay minimum wage ($7.25) or less, which ties the state with Mississippi for the greatest proportion of low-paying jobs.

“Everybody’s talking about the American dream, when you work hard, you get ahead,” Trujillo says, “but for us, that’s not true. Many of my coworkers don’t dare to turn on the air conditioning because the electricity bill will be so high they cannot pay it. What are you going to do? Put food on the table or pay the electricity bill? And the people who drive, are they going to put gas in the car or buy shoes for their children?”

“We’re just asking for fairness. We’re not trying to get rich,” he says. “You cannot leave this job and go to another place because the next person that is going to come to this job is going to have to face the same problem. We’re going to keep marching, we’re going to go on strike if it is needed, but we are not going to stop.”

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.