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A 50 Cent Raise over 5 Years? How Houston Janitors are Still Getting Screwed by JP Morgan and Other Rich Companies

The janitors' three-week strike has led to arrests, confrontations with executives like Jamie Dimon, and lousy offers from management, but no contract for the workers.

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In the strike’s second week, SEIU members in eight cities went on one-day solidarity strikes against the employers targeted in Houston (“conscience clauses” in their contracts  provided them protection to do so). Last Wednesday and Thursday, on the eve of negotiations, janitors held rallies in several cities at buildings owned by the Houston companies--including Brookfield Properties, the company that also owns New York City’s now-famous Zuccotti Park.

SEIU has also launched online ads tied to a  video and petition called “Call Me Jamie” (a riff on the pop hit “Call Me Maybe”), echoing a Capitol Hill confrontation in which janitor Adriana Vasquez asked JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, "Despite making billions of dollars each year, why do you deny the people cleaning your buildings a living wage?" SEIU alleges that Dimon told Vasquez to call his office to set up a meeting, but has since dodged her calls. Another SEIU ad campaign highlights $65 million that building owners saved by appealing their property tax appraisals.

At least 69 people have been arrested in civil disobedience actions, including a group of members and activists from outside Houston whom SEIU calls the “Freedom Flyers.”  “Between my job and my husband’s job as a union janitor, we have been able to give our children the foundation for a bright future,” Maria Piña, an arrestee from Chicago, said in an e-mailed statement. “I want that for all other working people, too.”

None of those arrested were Houston janitors; a spokesperson  told the Chronicle that the union kept participating janitors clear of arrest to avoid retaliation by management.

The janitors have received backing from local heavyweights. A group of religious leaders held a press conference Thursday declaring their support for the janitors, while simultaneously requesting that civil disobedience halt during negotiations. Houston public radio  reported that Archbishop Daniel Cardinal DiNardo told the crowd, “I appeal to all people of good will, to be in solidarity with the janitors as they seek a modest pay increase over a three year period…Janitors are key to the success of Houston.”

In an e-mailed statement July 20, Houston Mayor Annise Parker issued a call for the janitorial companies to return to negotiations, saying, “Their unwillingness to talk has left the union with no other choice but civil disobedience. ... 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.”

In an e-mailed statement following Thursday and Friday’s negotiations, the SEIU Bargaining Committee said, “Some progress was made at the bargaining table this week. However, negotiations ended today without an agreement. We will return to the table on Wednesday to continue talking about ways to lift standards for janitors in Houston.” The statement added that workers would continue to strike, to rally daily, and to “be visible on the streets of Houston,” but would “refrain from civil disobedience as long as we are engaged in productive negotiations.”

Perales said that when she and her husband first learned that workers in her building would be going on strike, he told her “that if I wanted to not put both jobs at risk, he could go on strike and I could keep going to work.” After thinking about it, she decided to strike as well: “I realized that I was fighting for something that would benefit both of us, and all of our co-workers, and I wanted to be part of the struggle.”

Josh Eidelson (josheidelson.com) is a Nation contributor and was a union organizer for five years. He covers labor as a contributing writer at Salon and In These Times. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

 
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