Janitors win new contract

I’m very glad for them.

Janitors who clean some of the largest office buildings in Houston have reached a tentative agreement with six of the city’s largest cleaning companies, a union representative said late Wednesday.

The deal is expected to bring an end to a heated labor dispute that began after the janitors’ last contract expired on May 31.

“We made progress here in Houston, and the janitors’ victory brings hope to security officers, airport workers and others trapped by poverty wages,” Tom Balanoff, president of Service Employees International Union, Local 1 in Chicago, which represents the 3,200 Houston janitors, said in a statement. “Our economy is broken, and unless we do something to turn low-wage jobs into good jobs, the middle class will be the great disappearing act of the 21st century.”

The Houston Area Contractors Association, meanwhile, distributed to cleaning companies and affected building owners and tenants a notice that the tentative agreement would give the janitors a 25-cent-per-hour raise each year for the next four years.

The janitors and the SEIU have been fighting for a raise for a long time now, and I’m happy they were finally able to get a breakthrough on that. But a dollar an hour raise phased in over four years, to $9.35 an hour? That works out to an annual salary of $19,448 – assuming a 40-hour work week, which may not be the case; the janitors were also seeking more hours but didn’t get them – which isn’t a total anyone can really live on. Houston janitors are still paid less than their counterparts in other cities, and they fell short of the $10 an hour goal they wanted. This is a step forward for them, and I’m sure the members will ratify the agreement when they vote today, but they still have a long way to go. They deserve a lot better than this. A statement from the janitors is beneath the fold, and The Observer has more.

Houston area janitors reached a tentative agreement today with cleaning contactors that raises wages 12 percent over four years and beat back a key demand of the contractors that would have significantly weakened the union in Houston.

Cleaning contractors had been insisting on a provision that would have allowed them to be underbid union standards in any building covered by the contract—a move that would have effectively reduced wages and benefits for thousands of janitors. However, both parties agreed to a compromise that protects wages and benefit gains that janitors have won since 2006 and allows the contractors to bid competitively in smaller buildings and in few outlying submarkets. The changes will not adversely affect union janitors.

Houston area janitors had been on strike since July 10th. Janitors had been making only $8.35 an hour, and cleaning contractors had initially offered only a .50 cent raise over 5 years. According to the agreement janitors’ wages will increase 12 percent to $9.35 an hour over four years—double the contractors’ initial proposal. The agreement was reached with UBM, ISS, GCA, ABM, Aztec and Eurest. Janitors will continue bargaining with Pritchard in the morning.

“We made progress here in Houston and the janitors’ victory brings hope to security officers, airport workers and others trapped by poverty wages” said Tom Balanoff, President of Service Employees International Union Local 1. “Our economy is broken and unless we do something to turn low wage jobs into good jobs, the middle class will be the great disappearing act of the 21st century.”

The strike came at a time when our country is in the midst of massive public protest over the increasing inequality between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of society. And it’s no wonder: The U.S. economy has grown by more than 80% in the past 30 years, but a majority of those gains in wealth have gone to the richest 1% of Americans while income for 95% of American households has either stayed the same or fallen since 1970.

That inequality is clear here in Houston where residential segregation by income is the worst in the country. In Texas, more than half a million workers make the minimum wage or less tying Texas with Mississippi for the highest proportion of minimum wage jobs in the country.

The janitors’ struggle to lift themselves out of poverty garnered support from religious leaders, elected officials and community groups here and around the country.

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