How Houston Janitors Got 25 Cents a Year

After a dispute that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) called a threat to the future of the Houston janitors’ union, workers have ended their month-long strike with a deal for a new four-year union contract. The agreement, which includes concessions from both sides, calls for annual 25-cent hourly wage increases and the maintenance of workers’ current healthcare plan. It will tweak, but not transform, the stark reality that SEIU highlighted in its campaign: In the “Millionaire City,” cleaning the offices of the nation’s top banks and oil companies is a poverty-wage job.

“It’s a start in the right direction,” said Alice McAfee, a janitor of 30 years, of the deal.

The contractors also expressed satisfaction. In an e-mailed statement, Tim Reily, the lead negotiator for the Houston Area Contractors Association, which represents three of the largest janitorial contractors involved, said “We’re pleased to reach an agreement that is fair and in the best interests of our clients and employees, which has been the goal all along.” An HACA spokesperson declined further comment.

The deal

Elsa Caballero, the Texas State Director for SEIU Local 1, called the deal “a huge win for these workers when you look at the overall picture they were facing.” She noted that the raise is more than double what was previously offered by management. Workers, she said, “were able to protect their rights” and also “keep the benefits that they’ve [previously] bargained.”

The contract, which covers 3,200 workers cleaning the offices of companies like Shell Oil and JP Morgan Chase, was first negotiated between SEIU Local 1 and janitorial contractors in 2006 after a 1,000-janitor strike. When a 2009 contract renewal expired in May, it set off a series of shorter work stoppages; then hundreds of workers went on strike indefinitely in the second week of July. After a tentative agreement with major contractors was announced on August 8, the strike ended. Workers ratified the contract three days later (one contractor, Pritchard Industries, was not part of the deal).

According to SEIU, over 500 workers attended the ratification meeting and voted unanimously to accept the new contract. McAfee said the meeting was “super fantastic…we had all come together to congratulate each other for standing, and keeping standing, and thanking the others that were with us. It was kind of like being at a family reunion.”

Janitors currently make $8.35 an hour. Under management’s final pre-strike proposal, they would have been paid $8.85 in 2017; under SEIU’s, they would have reached $10.00 in 2016. As Local 1 President Tom Balanoff wrote in a July 30 letter to pension funds, neither proposal would have brought the janitors above the poverty level. Under the final deal, janitors’ hourly wage will rise to $9.35 in 2016.

“Getting this raise,” said McAfee, “we will be able to do not all that we want to do, and not all we was wanting to do, but we’re looking forward.” She added that despite management efforts “to take us backwards,” the deal meant that “we’re moving forward.”

The agreement maintains current healthcare benefits: Workers, but not their family members, have access to a dedicated janitors’ clinic and emergency care. The plan will continue to cost workers $20 a month.

One of the thorniest negotiation issues was a dispute over the scope of certain previous contract language, which allowed contractors to bid for some accounts at rates below those in the contract. Both sides made concessions on this. The compromise specifies where contractors can bid at a lower rate based on “geography” and “the size of the building,” according to Caballero. Management, she says, has also agreed to language that ensures SEIU’s standards in the areas where it has the most members, while the union has in turn agreed to language that will make it cheaper for contractors to expand into new areas. She said the language was “something we looked at very hard to make sure it has the least amount of impact on current workers for this contract.”

According to McAfee, if contractors had won on this point, “We wouldn’t have had a union at all. So what we really won is we kept the union.”

Asked whether that language would make it more difficult for SEIU to organize currently non-union janitors in buildings where management would be allowed to pay below the union contract rate, Caballero said, “I don’t believe so. The ability to do new organizing is always there–it’s all about how much workers want to organize.” Caballero added that non-union Houston workers in other industries had been inspired by the janitors’ struggle, and said, “Our future in organizing is not just in janitors.”

Caballero credits the contract settlement to three factors: the persistence of the workers; support from clergy, politicians, and the public; and the backing of “responsible building owners who were willing to call contractors and say, ‘Hey, you need to address it.’”

The causes

The level, and the limits, of SEIU’s leverage in negotiations were shaped by its strategy, the economics of the industry, the state of labor law, and the extent of organizing among union members. Following a trend in modern U.S. strikes, this one was not designed to shut down the operations of the janitorial contractors; indeed, less than a fifth of the bargaining unit was on strike. Rather, the work stoppage provided an anchor for a pressure campaign featuring public protests, media events, and political and religious appeals, whose primary target was the well-known companies that own the buildings janitors clean, not the contractors who directly employ them.

The Taft-Hartley’s Act’s prohibition on “secondary boycotts” could have made it illegal to directly strike against the bank and oil companies, which SEIU saw as the true decision-makers. But the union employed a range of tactics meant to expand the struggle, including solidarity strikes in other cities, organized civil disobedience, research criticizing companies’ tax reappraisals, and a Capitol Hill confrontation with JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon.

During the strike, the contractors also pushed back publicly. They claimed that 98 percent of available workers had “ignored the purported ‘city-wide strike.'” In response, SEIU said that more than 500 of the 3200 janitors were on strike, but that a choice had been made not to strike against all employers as a way of protecting workers from retaliation. All of the strikers were employed by janitorial companies against which SEIU had filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which made them less vulnerable than others to being “permanently replaced” by management.

When supporters did civil disobedience actions, Houston janitors were present but not among those arrested; Caballero says this, too, was part of the union’s tactics to minimize the risk of retaliation by janitorial contractors. Because U.S. labor law offers only weak remedies against retaliation, the likelihood workers will be illegally punished for activism is directly related to the number of workers taking action–“strength in numbers” can reduce, but not eliminate, that risk.

Asked about the level of participation by non-striking workers, Caballero said that demonstrations during the strike consistently drew at least 500 to 600 total workers, including strikers and non-strikers. Texas is a Right to Work state, meaning that union contracts cannot require workers who are represented to pay for the costs of representation. Caballero said that roughly 40 percent of the workers covered by the SEIU contract had chosen to become dues-paying union members by the time the strike started, but added that membership is “a lot higher now” as more workers got involved during the strike.

Asked about the strike and its outcome, University of Texas Law Professor Julius Getman said, “Any kind of significant strike is going to involve a comprehensive effort, trying to put pressure at different points.”

Getman, the author of Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement and a longtime observer of the Houston janitors’ campaigns, added, “It’s a multifaceted effort to be successful, but doing it without the involvement of the workers on whose behalf you’re striking is unfortunate at best.”

“Workers are very proud of the accomplishments,” said Caballero. She added that “to appreciate what this fight was about” requires a comparison to the conditions before unionization: “They were at $20 a day, horrible working conditions, they could be fired on any given day, just because…no voice, nobody to help them.”

Caballero said to expect further improvements when a new contract is negotiated in 2016. So did McAfee: “The next time the contracts comes up, we will get the 10 dollars. And more.”

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on August 27, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years. His website is

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.