Houston Janitor Strike Ends With Agreement

Houston Mayor Bill White, right, and Tom Balanoff of SEIU announce a settlement between striking janitors and five major cleaning firms.
Houston Mayor Bill White, right, and Tom Balanoff of SEIU announce a settlement between striking janitors and five major cleaning firms. (By Pat Sullivan -- Associated Press)
By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 21, 2006

After a month-long strike featuring local, national and international demonstrations, Houston janitors reached an agreement yesterday with five major cleaning contractors that will double their income and provide them with health insurance by 2009.

The 5,300 mostly female, mostly Latino janitors represented by the Service Employees International Union will see their wages rise from $5.30 per hour on average to $7.75 by Jan. 1, 2009. Their shifts will also lengthen to six hours, as opposed to four hours or less, over the next three years, according to the agreement. They will be offered health coverage in 2009 for $20 a month for individuals, $175 for families.

The janitors ratified the agreement Monday night at the city's convention center. They are expected to return to work today. The union said janitors who walked off the job on Oct. 23 will be allowed to return to their jobs.

Yesterday's announcement marked the first victory in the right-to-work South for SEIU's long-running Justice for Janitors campaign that has organized low-wage workers at cleaning companies in 29 cities, including Washington. Union and management advocates said it signals a new phase of labor organization in the South.

"They'll wave this victory in the faces of the next people and just keep going," said Jack Haskell, a labor relations consultant who works for businesses that have faced the SEIU before. "It's going to be like when Sherman marched through Atlanta." Haskell and his firm, Adams, Nash, Haskell & Sheridan, are not involved in the current janitors' dispute.

"If Houston janitors can win by standing together, then workers anywhere can win by standing together," said SEIU spokesperson Lynda Tran.

University of Texas law professor Julius G. Getman said that unions historically have had little luck organizing in the South. "But it's a very different South now with the influx of low-wage immigrant workers," he said.

Speaking on behalf of the five cleaning contractors -- ABM Janitorial Services, Sanitors, OneSource Facility Services, GCA Services Group and Pritchard Industries -- attorney D. Michael Linihan said, "We have worked very diligently to both protect the interests of our valuable customers and to insure that our employees are treated in a fair manner."

Ercilia Sandoval, 42, one of the striking janitors and a member of the bargaining committee, said she believed that the workers would win but vowed to press the case "for our brothers who are in other cities earning the same low salaries we were earning until now."

Sandoval, who has been diagnosed with breast and lung cancer, was unhappy with the lag in the health insurance piece of the agreement. She called it a "very urgent issue that I wanted in this first year. I don't want anyone else to go through what I have gone through. . . . We'll fight for free insurance for the entire family in the next contract. I won't rest until I see that."

Throughout the strike, the SEIU applied more pressure to the owners of the buildings cleaned by the Houston janitors than to the cleaning contractors that employ them. Building owners ultimately have to absorb the cost of higher wages and benefits for janitors, and the union accused this oil-enriched business community of hoarding energy profits while keeping janitors in poverty.

"The SEIU people are masters at messaging and creating corporate outlaws," said Michael Lotito, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in San Francisco who has represented companies facing SEIU campaigns. "At some point the company says: 'We have to find a way out of this. We're taking too many negative hits.' "

At a news conference yesterday, Houston Mayor Bill White praised the agreement, which ended a campaign of civil disobedience at home and attacks on Houston's reputation nationally and abroad.

"I don't think people understood how low the wages were and that some people were only working four hours a day," White said. He called the settlement "a milestone in the history of the city of Houston and more importantly something uplifting the lives of Houston residents who are just trying to get by every single day."

Staff writer Sylvia Moreno in Houston contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company