Labor's Gambit in Houston

Demonstrators picket in Houston. The Service Employees International Union is trying to get cleaning firms to raise wages and offer health benefits.
Demonstrators picket in Houston. The Service Employees International Union is trying to get cleaning firms to raise wages and offer health benefits. (By Pat Sullivan -- Associated Press)
By Sylvia Moreno and Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 17, 2006

HOUSTON -- According to the laws of economics, a $5.25-an-hour night cleaning woman with breast cancer is no match for the multibillion-dollar corporations that run the energy capital of America. But that's only one of the assumptions being tested in a strike of 1,700 Houston janitors that began almost four weeks ago.

Ercilia Sandoval, 42, and her impoverished co-workers have become international celebrities of the Service Employees International Union's debut campaign in the right-to-work South. The union's Justice for Janitors campaign organized local janitors last year and this week is staging noisy protests and civil disobedience here, nationally and even internationally as it demands higher wages. Janitors have walked off the job at buildings that house more than half of Houston's office space.

One of the union's prime tactics is shaming this oil-rich city's business leaders with international publicity about the poverty-level wages of their cleaning people. As part of the campaign, Sandoval, a Salvadoran immigrant who works a four-hour shift cleaning the Aon building in Houston's posh Galleria district, has been telling her story on Web sites, in speeches and in interviews.

She has no health insurance, and she says it took her four months to qualify for the public assistance she needed to begin chemotherapy treatments. She lost her hair from the procedure and is scheduled for a mastectomy next month.

"I am supporting the union," Sandoval said, "for all the other Ercilias who are out there or who might have already died because of no health insurance."

Union picketers have publicized the janitors' cause in multiple languages, from Moscow to Miami to Sacramento, targeting buildings owned by the same multinational companies that own the Houston towers where the janitors work. Besides the low wages, the union is also drawing attention to the unusually high rate of medically uninsured in Harris County, which includes Houston: 31 percent, compared with the national rate of 15.9 percent.

A picketer in Germany carried a sign saying, "Houston, we have a problem" in German -- echoing the famous line from the Apollo 13 space mission.

"We learned over many years that these fights can't be just about unions," said SEIU President Andrew L. Stern. "They're symbolic of what's wrong in our country. The voters in this last election said loud and clear that we're growing apart, not growing together in this economy, and they want it to change."

Democratic congressional leaders have said one of their first priorities as a majority will be raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, which would go a long way toward meeting the union's goals.

The Houston janitors are demanding more -- $8.50 an hour plus health insurance. They also are demanding full-time work instead of four-hour shifts. Their proposed package, equivalent to a 60 percent pay increase, would still fall short of what SEIU janitors make in other cities, including the District. In many other cities, union janitors work full time and get health benefits.

Five major cleaning contractors that employ the janitors did not respond to the SEIU package, and the union accused them of bad faith, calling the strike on Oct. 23 at 58 buildings. Tenants say they have not noticed a difference, however, because the cleaning companies hired replacement workers. Spokesmen for three of the cleaning companies said none of them would comment until the dispute is resolved.

All day Wednesday and Thursday, hundreds of striking janitors moved about the city, accompanied by drums and makeshift maracas -- empty soda cans filled with beans. Several hundred of them gathered outside the Chevron headquarters on Wednesday, where 14 out-of-town protesters were arrested for chaining themselves to the front door of the 40-foot-tall tower of glass, steel and granite.

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