Striking Janitors Want Wages Above The Poverty Level

About a hundred protesters, men and women, who earn a living cleaning many of the big office buildings downtown, came out of 2 Houston Center on Fannin, one of the many office buildings they clean.

They belong to the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 150,000 janitors in the United States.

They've been on strike since last week after their contract expired May 31st. Spokesperson Paloma Martinez says they've asked for a raise from $8.35 an hour to $10 an hour.

"Their last offer was a .50¢ raise in 5 years. So, janitors wouldn't even be at $9.00 an hour in 2017. For people who are making a poverty wage already, that's not gonna do anything to help our community. The janitors are really looking to get  to about $10.00 an hour in three years. Something that's closer to a living wage, something that's actually going to contribute to the city."

She says the janitors earn less than the poverty level of $22,000 for a family of four.

"Right now, Houston janitors are appealing to the business community in Houston saying, 'You can do the right thing by Houston families. You can create middle class jobs that are really gonna move us all forward together. We need an economy that's gonna work for everybody, not just the very top'. And that's what the janitors are telling the building owners in this town, and the business community, 'You can do right. Help us help Houston."

Margie Harris practices employment law in Houston. She says the conflict between janitors and contractors is legitimate.

"Not only do they get little thanks for their work in keeping these offices habitable and presentable from a professional viewpoint, but then they don't get paid a decent wage. I just don't understand how our economy can justify keeping people who are working full-time, and sometimes working more than one job, at below poverty level." 

She says janitors are protected by being in a union, because the National Labor Relations Act encourages people to unionize, and discourages employers from retaliating against them if they do form a union.

"I've seen a lot of anti-union messages put out by corporations over the course of years, and what they fail to reveal is that, when you act with someone, standing up and saying this is not right or this is not fair, you stand a much better chance of being listened to. There is safety in numbers." 

A call to one of the largest cleaning contractors in Houston, Pritchard Industries, was not returned. Meanwhile, support for the strike will spread this week to major cities across the country in solidarity.

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