HOUSTON -- June has been a month of fierce struggle for janitors in Houston. They make only $8.35 per hour and often only get four-hour shifts each day. They make only $9,000 dollars per year and live in poverty.
Many of the janitors employed by big corporations such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell, Penzoil, Centerpoint Energy, and Reliant, do not make enough to provide food for their families and live in one-bedroom apartments with three other family members. Most cannot afford healthcare and often have to choose between food and medicine. Most of the janitors cannot afford to pay the high price of gas and most can barely even afford to take the bus to work.
One of the janitors, Rita Soto, says that "we are left with nothing at the end of the month," and is unable to afford Internet or even a new pair of shoes for her daughter. She works two other jobs and barely has any time left at the end of the day to spend with her children.
Houston janitors are paid the lowest in the country, with workers in other cities making much higher wages: Cincinnati ($9.80), Cleveland ($10.30), Detroit ($10.97), and Chicago ($15.47). With the cost of living continually rising, $8.35 is not enough to support a family of four and provide for the means of subsistence.
Some 3,200 janitors in Houston are members of the Service Employees International Union and have a contract agreement with their employers. The janitors, sick and tired of the total impoverishment created by their low-wages, rose up to demand a wage of 10 dollars per hour (incrementally over the next three years). The employers denied the proposal, offering the workers only an increase to $8.85 by 2016.
When the companies broke off contract negotiations with SEIU on May 31, 11 janitors at Pritchard Industries walked off the job and went on strike. The company fired them immediately.
Many of the other janitors in the SEIU were harassed by their managers and threatened with firing. Izabela Miltko, spokeswoman for the SEIU, says that the employers who have fired the workers for striking are in violation of federal labor law.
On Tuesday, June 5, all janitors with the SEIU voted to go on strike until their employers renew their negotiation contract and pay them a living wage of 10 dollars per hour.
In order to prevent the bosses from crushing their strike effort, the janitors have called strikes at random locations each day for the coming two weeks. Whenever the janitors walk out, their bosses call in scabs to walk across the picket line. Many of the janitors have lost their jobs, despite the fact that by firing strikers their employers are in clear violation of federal labor law.
On June 14, during a march with the janitors as well as over 450 activists from progressive organizations, one of the janitors was arrested. One of the janitors, Hernan Trujillo found himself suddenly trampled by a group of mounted police officers.
Trujillo's fellow co-worker rushed to the scene to help him get free from underneath the horses. When she attempted to help Trujillo, one of the cops handcuffed her and threw her into a police van.
The janitors have received much support from the progressive community in Houston, as well as from their fellow janitors across the U.S. At a rally on June 12, Texas Rep.Al Green, D., gave an inspirational speech in support of the striking workers. At this rally, Richard Shaw, head of the Texas AFL-CIO, was there in solidarity with the janitors, as well as the Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston. Even Mayor Anise Parker called on the employers to pay the workers a living wage and fulfill their demands.
Every afternoon the janitors organize at Tranquility Park in Downtown to try to get the bosses to fulfill their demands. The union sends a delegation a few times a week to the corporations where the workers are employed to try to work out a deal with the employers. When the delegation arrives, they're met by mounted police, who do not allow them to enter the building. Police harass both the activists and the workers, following them around after demonstrations and threatening them with arrest.
Photo: 3,000+ Houston janitors are members of the Service Employees International Union, which is pictured here in a demonstration. Damian Dovarganes/AP