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"Nobody thought that poor Latinos of Houston would be successful, but today we can stand up and carry our heads very high," Flora Aguilar, a Houston janitor and member of the Service Employees International Union bargaining committee, told janitors gathered at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Monday night to celebrate their victory. "We all won today."

Houston, we  have a solution.

You've heard it all before. Unions can't organize in the South — maybe Florida, but never in Texas. Immigrant workers are too intimidated to organize. Blah, blah, blah.

5,300 janitors in Houston just proved everyone wrong yesterday with an amazing contract victory in Houston, Texas. After months of negotiations and failure to reach a contract, the janitors went on strike last month for higher pay, more guaranteed work hours and health insurance. The janitors, who currently earn $5.30 per hour, were organized by the Service Employees International Union last year in what was the largest union organizing campaign in the South in years.

The victory came only two days after mounted police on horseback violently broke up a peaceful demonstration by strikers and their supporters, throwing dozens into jail. Harris County District Attorney initially set a bond of $888,888 cash for each of the 44 peaceful protesters arrested, for a combined total of $39.1 Million. (Compare this with a $30,000 bond recently set for a Harris County man recently charged with murder.)

At least one person was hospitalized — an 83 year-old janitor from New York City — as the police attacked the demonstrators:

Houston janitor Mateo Portillo, 33, a Houston janitor who works for the cleaning firm GCA at the CenterPoint Energy building, said, “The horses came all of a sudden. They started jumping on top of people. I heard the women screaming. A horse stomped on top of me. I fell to the ground and hurt my arm. The horses just kept coming at us. I was terrified. I never thought the police would do something so aggressive, so violent.”

Another demonstrator, Anna Denise Solís, told of the oppressive conditions at the jail after their arrest.

They really tried to break us down. The first night they put the temperature so high that a woman—one of the other inmates—had a seizure. The second night they made it freezing and took away many of our blankets. We didn’t have access to the cots so we had to sleep on a concrete floor. When we would finally fall asleep the guards would come and yell ‘Are you Anna Denise Solís? Are you so and so?’ One of the protesters had a fractured wrist from the horses. She had a cast on and when she would fall asleep the guard would kick the cast to wake her up. She was in a lot of pain.

The guards would tell us: ‘This is what you get for protesting.’ One of them said, ‘Who gives a shit about janitors making 5 dollars an hour? Lots of people make that much.’ The other inmates—there were a lot of prostitutes in there—said that they had never seen the jail this bad. The guards told them: ‘We’re trying to teach the protesters a lesson.’

The three year agreements starts the janitors on the road to the American middle class.

  • Janitors pay will increase to $6.25 an hour on January 1, 2007, $7.25 an hour on January 1, 2008, and $7.75 by January 1, 2009. That's a total 126 percent over the course of the contract.
  • The new contract will increase work hours for janitors currently provided with only 4 hours of work a night to six hours a shift in two years. The additional hours and the wage increase mean that janitors who make $5.15 an hour will see their income more than double by the end of 2008.
  • Starting January 1, 2009 janitors will be eligible for individual health care insurance for $20/month. Family insurance will also be available for a cost of $175 a month.  
  • Workers will receive six paid holidays per year and be able to accrue paid vacation time beginning the first year of the contract. For many janitors, this is the first time in their lives that they'll receive paid time off from work.

Pay will still fall below other SEIU organized cities. Janitors in Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington DC have won the right for full family health care and full time work, and they're paid between $9.45 an hour (in Denver) to $13.80/hour in Chicago.

As NY Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse pointed out, the strikers already had four strikes against them:

most of the janitors were part-time employees, worked for subcontractors and were immigrants who spoke little English, and many were also illegal immigrants.

So given that, why did SEIU choose Houston, deep in the heart of anti-union Texas for its next organizing battle instead of some more labor-friendly city?

"It's a foothold into the South," said Julius G. Getman, Earl E. Sheffield Regents chair at the University of Texas and author of several books on labor unions. "SEIU has been waiting for an opportunity to successfully organize in the South." Houston is the SEIU's "sweet spot," home to many low-wage workers without health insurance, said Michael Lotito, an employment lawyer with Jackson Lewis in San Francisco.

The nation's second-largest union is betting cleaning companies — who have operations in other cities — are vulnerable to their argument that it is unfair for their janitors in Houston to be paid less than janitors in other cities. SEIU also believes that because many of Houston's office developers have buildings in other cities, pressure brought to bear on them will trickle down to the cleaning companies, said Stephen Lerner, director of the SEIU's nationwide Justice for Janitors campaign in Washington, D.C.

And how did they manage to win with everything seemly working against them? As Houston Chronicle reporter L.M. Sixel points out, this wasn't your father's strike. In fact, it was more reminiscent of the civil rights movement or the early days of union sit-down strikes: 

Instead of focusing on turnout and dirty buildings, the union has adopted a multipronged attack that it hopes will put pressure on big tenants and building owners. It's drawing attention to corporate profits, throwing up picket lines in unexpected places and appealing to clergy members and political leaders. In other cities the union has created big traffic jams and launched hunger strikes. "It's not about standing in front of a building and walking around in a circle," said Stephen Lerner, director of SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign in Washington, D.C. The union is using nonviolent civil disobedience tactics of civil rights leaders and farmworkers, he said.

"It's just about the only way in the private sector where workers can form a union," said Bruce Nissen, a professor of labor studies at Florida International University in Miami. Federal labor laws that were designed for workers to organize without interference from employers just don't work, Nissen said. The rules allow employers to stretch the election process out for years, he said. By the time courts rule that an election was fair, many times no original employees are left.

The SEIU victory will send shivers down the backs of the country's thriving union-busting sector, as a representative of one of the worst union busting firms explains: 

Jack Haskell can already envision the future if the SEIU comes away with a win in Houston. "They get the foot in the door, get a decent contract and use that as a marketing tool to show workers in other cities how successful they were," said Haskell, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Adams, Nash, Haskell & Sheridan , a Hartford, Conn., firm that consults with companies facing union organizing campaigns. "Their cry will be, 'We can do it in Houston, we can do it wherever you are, in Birmingham or Atlanta,' " he said.

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The other amazing thing about this strike was the sympathetic press coverage, as can be seen in this article by AP reporter Monica Rhor: 

"The situation in Houston is really symbolic of the divide in this country and all over the world," said Stephen Lerner, the director of the SEIU's national Justice for Janitors campaign. "In most strikes, the goal is to stop the factory from operating or stop something from getting cleaned. "The strike here is really about thousands of workers being seen as full human beings, full participants in the life of our country. Are we going to lift the poor up or dig in and start pushing them further into poverty?"

  Rohr also pointed out the connection with the growing immigrant rights movement:

Many unions, including the SEIU and the carpenters' union, have been reaching out to immigrants in an effort to reverse decreasing membership. In turn, many immigrants, both legal and illegal, welcome the union support at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is running strong. "The union has opened our eyes and our minds," said Austraberta Rodriguez, 63, who has worked as a janitor for 27 years.

On a chilly night last week, Mr. Rodriguez walked a picket line outside a downtown Houston building, swathed in shawls and a hood to guard against the cool air and determined to keep up the fight. "We want more hours, better pay, but we also want more respect and more dignity," he said. The SEIU represents 5,300 janitors in Houston, a predominantly immigrant and almost exclusively female workforce. As part of their organizing strategy here, the union has worked closely with community activists and churches that serve the city's immigrant community.

"The current climate has really worsened fear in the community, but this seems to the one area where immigrants overcome that fear and are putting up a fight in defense of their rights," said Maria Jimenez, special projects coordinator with CRECEN, a Houston-based immigrants rights organization. "It's an essential fight in our area and nationally. If the janitors win, they will provide an environment that's positive for immigrants rights issues. They lose, we can't be worse off."

Even the Wall St. Journal pointed out that the victory

will give the union more leverage in coming janitor-contract negotiations in other cities, labor experts said.

It will also encourage the union to aggressively target building owners during organizing drives and contract negotiations using some of the same civil-disobedience tactics employed in Houston, the experts said

Another reason that winning this strike is important is that it's a first contract, always the hardest to win. According to Cornell University researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner, more than a year after voting for union representation, workers are unable to negotiate initial collective bargaining agreements 32 percent of the time. 

And, as labor blogger Nathan Newman has explained, victories like this have a snowball effect — not only representing a positive example to oppressed workers, but also increasing the resources that workers and unions have available for further organizing and political campaigns. Indeed, a major union resurgence in the South could put more than a few "safe" Republican districts in jeopardy in coming elections.

Finally, this victory needs to be put into a wider political context. Following certain "no brainer" issues like raising the minimum wage and dealing with prescription drug costs, labor's major short and long term priority will be passage of the Employee Free Choice act. The SEIU janitors forced their employers to recognize the union based on a card check instead of a months-long NLRB election which gives the employer time to intimidate workers into voting against the union. EFCA would require employers to recognize the union based on a simple majority of cards indicating workers' desire to be represented by a union. It would also have much harsher penalties for employers who violate labor laws, and provide mediation when the parties are unable to reach a first contract.

This bill has solid Democratic support in both houses of Congress and anti-labor forces are already gearing up their propaganda machines to defeat it.  Although it will probably be approved by the House of Representatives in the Spring, it probably won't reach the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. Nevertheless, there's no reason why EFCA shouldn't become a major issue in the upcoming 2008 election campaign. And given labor's overwhelming vote and get-out-the-vote efforts for Democrats in the recent elections (despite the relatively small size of the labor movement), there's no logical reason that strengthening the labor movement by passing EFCA shouldn't be a top Democratic priority.

Every city can be Houston. And every election can be 2006.

Jordan Barab blogs about workplace safety and labor issues at Confined Space.