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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.


The following article first appeared at Working In These Times , the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times ' weekly updates .

Three weeks after hundreds of Houston janitors went on strike, janitorial contractors and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 returned to the negotiating table on Thursday. But the bargaining concluded Friday without a settlement or an end to the strike.

As I’ve  reported, negotiations over janitors' third union contract broke down at the end of May. Following a series of June work stoppages, hundreds began walking off the job on July 10. Their cause caught fire nationwide, sparking a series of high-profile demonstrations, solidarity strikes and statements of support.

Wages are a key sticking point. SEIU proposed an increase from $8.35 to $10.00 over three years, but management’s “last, best, and final” offer in May raised wages only fifty cents over five years. "The union's proposal makes their lives a little better, while [management's] proposal pushes the janitors deeper into poverty," SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff wrote in a July 30 letter.

Also at issue: a clause in the janitors' current contract that allows contractors to bid on some accounts at lower wage and benefit rates and then bring compensation up to the contract's standard over a three year period. SEIU says that while the clear intent of the language was to apply only to bidding on non-union accounts, contractors are now claiming it applies to union accounts as well. Balanoff's letter calls this "a blatant attempt to destroy the Houston janitors' union."

Talks are set to resume on Wednesday. The contractors are employed by major corporations like Exxon Mobile and JP Morgan Chase, which SEIU leaders believe hold the ultimate decision-making power in the negotiations.

Janitor Norma Perales said she and her husband went on strike last month “to be seen, to be valued. And so they take us into account.” Together, Perales and her husband work three jobs to support their three children, ages 6 to 10. He works a nine-and-a-half-hour daytime shift in the shipping and receiving department of a furniture warehouse. Then both spouses work 5-hour evening shifts in the same building for the contractor ABM Janitorial Services. The kids’ grandmother watches them at night; Perales said her husband can spend time with them “pretty much only during the weekends.” (Perales was interviewed in Spanish.)

With a raise to $10 an hour, Perales said she and her husband “could give our children more than we can now, because we’re struggling to pay our bills and our rent.  The time that we spend away from our children would be worth something.”

Three of the largest contractors–ISS Facility Services, GCA Services, and ABM–did not respond to requests for comment. In a letter  quoted by the Houston Chronicle on July 20, the Houston Area Contractors Association wrote that, “Although the SEIU has been touting high participation, we estimate that some 98 percent of available staff have ignored the purported ‘city-wide strike.'” An SEIU spokesperson told the Chronicle, “Building owners always say that.”

The SEIU estimates that of the 3,200 janitors covered by the union contract, over 500 are on strike. All of the striking workers are employed by contractors against which SEIU has filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Under labor law, workers striking to protest unfair labor practices have protections against being permanently replaced that other striking workers do not.

Since the strike began, SEIU has employed a range of additional tactics to put pressure on the building owners, including regular pickets and demonstrations. Perales says that during these actions, children in tow, she and her husband “feel important, that we can fight for our rights. And we feel good."

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