Why The Houston Janitor Strike Was Historic


Cindy Casares Portrait

The janitor strike in Houston—which concluded last night with an agreement between janitors and cleaning companies—was historic and rare for many reasons. Texas is a right-to-work state. That means it’s illegal to require a person to join a union to keep or get a job, making the organization of a protest of this magnitude, which lasted more than four weeks, difficult. The right-to-work law also makes it illegal to fire someone for joining a union, but don’t be fooled, the law was adopted because of a long history of anti-union sentiment in this state. Reasons for anti-union leanings are as amorphous as a child’s fear of the dark, mostly driven by the conservative view that unions spawn unwanted social and political agents. But Texas’ anti-union sentiment also has its roots in the very concrete strategy of attracting outside industries to take advantage of cheap labor—a tactic that has worked well in this border state, with Mexico providing us a steady stream of exploitable employees. New York-based companies like ABM, Pritchard and JP Morgan Chase are all contractors of the Houston janitors that, until yesterday, refused to increase the paltry $9,000 a year average wage for janitors.

What little union labor was organized in Texas took a hit following the 1960s when the state grew more Hispanic and more female. Union organizers failed to adapt their recruitment tactics to the changing demographics. The growing number of high-tech jobs also decreased union membership in the state. Across the country, 11.8 percent of wage and salary workers were members of a union in 2011; but in Texas, union members comprised only 5.4 percent of the work force. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Texas had about one-fourth as many union members as New York in 2011, despite having 2.3 million more wage and salary employees.

But with the advent of the immigration reform and Occupy movements, Texas’ traditionally lowest paid workers may be realizing their situation doesn’t have to remain the way it is. There is a support system if they seek it. Last week, janitors and human rights activists in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York City, Portland, San Diego, San Ramon, Seattle, St. Louis, Toronto, and Washington, D.C., protested in solidarity with those in Houston. Texas Observer reporter Emily DePrang described the scene from Houston on August 2, where members of the janitors’ union had gathered in front of the city’s swankiest mall, the Galleria, to demonstrate:

The crowd was largely middle-aged and Hispanic with lined faces, more women than men, some with children in tow. They were people with something to lose.

These are the people the other unions failed to organize and they now represent the new face of Texas. A promotional video created by the Service Employees International Union Local 1, which represents the Houston janitors, is full of this face: Poor, female and of color. Struggling, not only to feed their children, but act as primary caretaker too. The description on the YouTube page recalls the rallying cries of the Occupy Wall Street movement. “For the richest 1%, Houston is booming. Yet, Houston janitors, who clean the offices of some of the largest corporations in the world, live in abject poverty on less than $9,000 year.”

SEIU Local 1’s Paloma Martinez says it’s not the union’s goal to target members of color or female gender. “It isn’t about who you are or who does the job, but about the job itself. Is it actually going to help families thrive? Is it actually going to revitalize the community? That’s a really important point the janitors are making because we can’t get into identity politics. It has to be a more serious question of how we revitalize the middle class. That’s the conversation the janitors want to have.”

Regardless, SEIU is succeeding in Texas where few unions have, organizing a strike of this longevity that even managed to get mayoral support. Houston mayor Annise Parker urged contractors, in a press release on July 20, to return to the negotiating table remarking that, “Their unwillingness to talk has left the union with no other choice but civil disobedience. That is not good for the City of Houston or our economy and it is not how we do business in Houston. We work hard, we work together and we treat each other fairly. The union has made good-faith offers. Now it’s time for the janitorial contractors to sit back down at the table to work out an agreement that is fair and just.”

They began negotiating again on August 3, and late last night, the union announced a deal. As DePrang reports, the janitors will receive a one-dollar-an-hour raise in the next four years. That’s less than the $1.65-per-hour increase the union initially sought, but much higher than the paltry 50-cent raise the companies had offered. In that way, this historic strike proved a success.