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Justice for Janitors: Houston Janitors Claim Victory in Landmark Strike

StoryNovember 21, 2006
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In Houston, janitors have ended a month-long strike and have agreed to a contract that could double their salary within two years. On Monday, an agreement was reached between five major cleaning contractors and 5,300 janitors who are represented by the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. The striking janitors were mostly female and mostly Latino. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re turning now to Houston, Texas. Janitors have ended a month-long strike, have agreed to a contract that could double their salary within two years. On Monday, an agreement was reached between the five major cleaning contractors and 5,300 janitors who are represented by the Service Employees International Union, the striking janitors mostly female and Latino. Under the deal, the janitors’ hourly wages will increase from $5.30, on average, to $7.75 over the next two years. In addition, the cleaning companies have agreed to offer longer hours, paid holidays, vacation time and health insurance, starting in 2009. However, the companies refused to guarantee full-time work to the janitors or to fully pay for their health benefits. Labor analysts have predicted this organizing victory will make it easier for SEIU to win similar campaigns in other Southern cities.

Stephen Lerner first joins us, before we go to Houston. He’s director of the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign in Washington, D.C. We invited representatives of the five cleaning companies to come on the program, but they either declined our request or didn’t respond.

Stephen Lerner, very briefly, why you chose to make these inroads to organize in the South, in Houston?

STEPHEN LERNER: Well, Houston is the fourth-largest city in America, and workers in Houston are making literally a third as much as workers doing the same jobs in other countries. So it’s really about the future of this country: Are we going top of jobs that pay decently? Are we going to organize in the South and lift people out of poverty? Or are we going to increasingly drive more and more people into poverty who are working hard, doing difficult jobs?

AMY GOODMAN: And what did it mean to make this move into Houston? How did this organizing effort take place?

STEPHEN LERNER: Well, it took place both in Houston and literally around the globe. Workers in Houston joined together. We built a coalition of religious and community groups and political leaders. Workers in Houston traveled all over the United States. They struck. They got arrested. They went to jail. And all over this country, other janitors honored the picket lines. And literally from Moscow to Mexico, all over Europe, workers engaged in demonstrations and actions against global companies, saying workers in Houston need to be paid decently. It’s about good jobs for workers.

AMY GOODMAN: Where are you headed next?

STEPHEN LERNER: Well, we’re going to continue to work and grow in Houston. We’re expanding our work in Florida. And we’re looking all over the South and in other cities in this country where the working poor are working hard and not getting what they deserve. So it’s an incredibly exciting time, and I think it proves that when workers unite and when they work together, we can change this country.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of health insurance. We’re going to go in a minute to a clip of one of the organizers of the campaign in Houston, who has breast cancer, was not diagnosed early. In this arrangement, this agreement that was made—it still has to be voted on—they say some kind of health insurance by 2009. What does that mean?

STEPHEN LERNER: Well, first, the—in an historic event, it was voted and approved on last night down in Houston in an incredibly exciting event. What it means is there’s individual insurance in 2009 for workers. They only have to pay $20 a month. And it’s not fully paid family insurance, but it’s an incredibly important first step. And what it means is people will be able to go to the doctor, to the hospital, and enjoy what a lot of people assume all workers should have, which is insurance.

AMY GOODMAN: But what do they get?

STEPHEN LERNER: They get—it’s a standard, very good insurance policy that allows hospitalization and all the various things that—that insurance policies should have.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Stephen Lerner, I want to thank you for being with us, director of the Justice for Janitors campaign. He’s in Washington, but now we’re going to go to Houston to speak with two janitors involved in the organizing campaign. But first, the story of Ercilia Sandoval. She’s a Salvadoran immigrant who works a nightly four-hour shift cleaning a large office building in Houston. She earns $5.25 an hour, has no health insurance or other benefits. Earlier this year, she learned she had breast cancer.

ERCILIA SANDOVAL: [translated] My name is Ercilia Sandoval. The company CGA, which I work for, we don’t have health insurance. We don’t have a single benefit. We don’t have anything. Right now, if I had health insurance, I wouldn’t have to be going through what I’m going through. I started feeling bad around mid-January. February, my arm, my back, my neck were all hurting a lot, as well as my breast. I thought it was from the hard work that I do. But never before had the pain stayed this long.

AMY GOODMAN: Six months ago, Ercilia was diagnosed with breast cancer and told she needed surgery and chemotherapy immediately.

ERCILIA SANDOVAL: [translated] My doctor told me it was urgent that I go to the emergency room right away. I went to the hospital, but they didn’t want to attend to me, because, they said, I didn’t have health insurance. When they diagnosed my cancer, I told my family, my two daughters. And when they heard the news, they started to cry, and they said that they didn’t want me to die. I told them not to worry, that God was going to help us, and I’m going to be able to watch them graduate from college. We’re fighting for the union with SEIU. We’re going to show these giant companies there are many of us poor people, but we are powerful. It’s a huge injustice, what they’re doing to all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: That video was produced by SEIU—that’s Service Employees International Union’s Houston Justice for Janitors. Well, in the past three weeks, Houston janitors have staged demonstrations and engaged in civil disobedience. Their efforts have attracted supporters from all over the country who have traveled to Houston to join the protests.

Last Thursday, 46 protesters were arrested when they blocked a downtown intersection. As the janitors began to sit down peacefully in the intersection, Houston police officers on horses charged at them, trying to break up the demonstration. Photographs show police officers on horses trampling the protesters. At least one of the protesters, Hazel Ingram, 83-year-old janitor from New York, was hospitalized.

Mercedes Herrera and Nelson Canela are joining us now from Houston. Mercedes is a Houston janitor and a member of the bargaining committee for the union. Nelson is a New York janitor who was arrested at the protest last Thursday. He’s also a former U.S. marine. We invited a representative of the Houston Police Department to join us, but they declined our request.

Nelson, I want to begin with you. Tell us what happened during these protests.

NELSON CANELA: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

AMY GOODMAN: Nelson, we’re just trying to see if our link-up is direct with Houston. Nelson, can you hear me?

MERCEDES HERRERA: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.


AMY GOODMAN: We’ll go to a quick music break, and then we’ll come back to Nelson and Mercedes. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, as we return now to Nelson Canela, a New York janitor, went to Houston to support the campaign, arrested on Thursday, civil disobedience in the intersection. Nelson, thanks for joining us. Nelson?


AMY GOODMAN: Nelson, can you hear me?


AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you tell us what happened in this civil disobedience that you engaged in on Thursday? What happened in the streets of Houston?

NELSON CANELA: Well, 47 of us closed the streets within not even a two-minute time period. We had mounted police come and break up the crowd. A lot of us were handcuffed together. And they just basically threw the horses at us. A lot of us got injured. Two of us had—came out with broken arms. One young lady came out with a broken wrist. And a 83-year-old woman, a janitor from New York, was hospitalized. She was hurt pretty bad. I, myself, got hurt on my knee. And basically the cops just basically used the horses to basically push us off, and they was trying to separate us in different direction, knowing that we were handcuffed. So they were using two horses—one to separate to the right and one to separate to the left. But, you know, I mean, they had to know that we were handcuffed, and, you know, it’s a dangerous situation.

I mean, basically, we were, you know, basically mistreated, you know, mistreated, and it wasn’t called for, for them to use the horses on us like that. These are very big animals, and, I mean, they can really cause a lot of damage, even death. And at that moment, the Houston Police Department did not realize that—I don’t know what was going through their mind when they decided that they wanted to use these horses against us. But, I mean, it was uncalled for. We was doing a peaceful, you know, demonstration, you know, and it could have been handled—



AMY GOODMAN: Nelson, you’re an Afghanistan War vet?

NELSON CANELA: Yes. Yes, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: How did your—how did your experience there compare to what happened to you here?

NELSON CANELA: Well, basically, in Afghanistan, I have room to move around. I mean, now, what happened to us on the capital, on Alabama, I believe so, if that’s the correct place where I was, it was scary, because I was basically just, you know, tied to these people with nowhere to go, and these big animals jumping on top of us and running, you know, trying to trample us. I mean, it was really scary. I mean, I thought Houston was going to be my burial ground at that time, because, I mean, I felt like these horses were going to really crush us and really hurt us really bad. But, you know, thank God that we came out of it OK. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Mercedes—let me ask, Mercedes Herrera: Did you tell the police in advance you were going to engage in this civil obedience?

MERCEDES HERRERA: No, I don’t know this. What she say?

AMY GOODMAN: Did you tell the police in advance you were going to engage in this civil disobedience, that you were going to sit down in the intersection?

MERCEDES HERRERA: Oh, no. I don’t know [inaudible] San Francisco. This is—they no—no stay here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you—can you talk about your response to the victory last night, your union, the SEIU, the janitors, 5,300 voted to—to support the contract. How are you feeling now?

MERCEDES HERRERA: I’m very happy, very happy for victory now, for I’ve got benefits. I’ve got a—I changed my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you work in Houston?

MERCEDES HERRERA: In San Felipe Chase Plaza, five years.

AMY GOODMAN: And what will this mean for your family?

MERCEDES HERRERA: Oh, my family is happy for yesterday, the victory, is very happy, everybody, for—no more invisible, no more. This is good for everybody, the janitors.

AMY GOODMAN: And what now? What happens next for you?

MERCEDES HERRERA: Well, the work—this victory is not finished now. This is more—the more victories, in next three years, more victories. This is our fight.

AMY GOODMAN: How much do you make an hour right now as a janitor?

MERCEDES HERRERA: Oh, right now, this is $5.55 an hour. Next month is more, $6.25.

AMY GOODMAN: Five dollars. You make now $5?

MERCEDES HERRERA: Yeah, $5.55. Then more next month.

AMY GOODMAN: Nelson Canela, why did you go from New York to Houston for this? You’re not a janitor in Houston.

NELSON CANELA: No. Reason I come, I’m part of a local SEIU, 32BJ, and we heard that people, you know, janitors in Houston, needed a lot of support to gain this contract that they have now, which—you know, which is really good for them. We had people come from all over, not only New York. We had people come from Sacramento, California, Milwaukee, Maryland. I mean, it was a lot of different people from a lot of different places. And basically, I mean, when SEIU needs help, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or who you are; you know, when your fellow brothers are falling down, we’re always here to pick them up. So, I am honored and grateful that I was here to fight this fight with Houston.

OK, you know, now I can sleep good and say that these people are being treated fairly, because, you know, they no longer will be invisible, and they will get the respect and the dignity that they deserve when they walk to their job sites. And now I can truly say that, you know, everyone who participated in this made history in Houston. And like Mercedes said, you know, this is just the first victory; there’s many more to be won. And we are going to win many more.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you meet many other war veterans in the streets of Houston, many other people who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, who are janitors in New York or Houston or other parts of the country?

NELSON CANELA: I met this one gentleman, he was a war veteran. I didn’t really get to his name, but I spoke to him briefly. But as far as any other guys from, you know, all the other cities, wasn’t really much time to talk. You know, we was out here to help these janitors and push them and get this contract, get this contract signed for them. I mean, when we got that victory last night, you know, we celebrated, so we got to meet a lot of people from a lot of different places. And, you know, we—some of us are going back, so we got to say our goodbyes. And, you know, we’re looking forward to meeting up somewhere down in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you headed to other parts of the country, perhaps other parts of the South?

NELSON CANELA: The South? I’m not too sure, but maybe. Who knows? I mean, SEIU is very predictable, and wherever there’s a fight, you know, we’re there, no matter where it’s at. I mean, if we have to take a boat, a plane, you know, it doesn’t matter. You know, when SEIU is needed, we’ll fight the fight, and we’ll prevail.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Nelson Canela, for joining us, New York janitor who went to Houston to support the campaign for janitors there. They have just won their citywide campaign. Also speaking with Mercedes Herrera, a Houston janitor and part of the bargaining team that won in this five-company contract that the SEIU janitors approved last night.

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