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."
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.
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.
Flora Aguilar, 51, another striking janitor, was making $5.15 an hour after more than two years on the night crew for the cleaning contractor OneSource at the 55-floor Enterprise Plaza downtown. She was taking home $209 every two weeks, of which $20 went to bus fares. She said she had seen two managers fire women for refusing to stay past the end of their shift -- even though the women would have missed their last bus home.
Easter Lemming and PDiddie have been on this. See also this video footage that EL shot as the police broke up the protest, plus the many pictures at the Justice for Janitors blog. The Houston Justice for Janitors page has the latest news, and a personal statement from one of the arrestees that you need to read.
These folks need to be paid a wage they can live on. There's no excuse not to do that.
UPDATE: Stace has more.
UPDATE: And more from Miya Shay, who wonders if the strike is actually working.Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 20, 2006 to Local politics | TrackBack