Houston janitors campaign for economic justice, 2005-2006


Paid family health insurance, increased wages (to $8.50 an hour), full-time work, and better working conditions

Time period

April 30, 2005 to November 21, 2006


United States

Location City/State/Province

Houston, Texas
Jump to case narrative

Segment Length

Approximately 3 months

Notes on Methods

It's not known what actions were used in segments 2, 3, 4, and 5, but it is likely that the campaigners continued to use the methods shown in segment 1.


Justice for Janitors campaign by the Service Employee’s International Union (SEIU) led by SEIU Local president Stephen Lerner


Not known

External allies

Sympathy protests from other janitors throughout the United States and even internationally, protesters (dubbed “freedom flyers”) from around the United States that came and protested with the Houston janitors.

Involvement of social elites

United States Representative Sheila Jackson Lee as well as other Democratic congressional leaders.


Cleaning companies that employed the janitors

Nonviolent responses of opponent

None known

Campaigner violence

None known

Repressive Violence

At the end of the campaign, protestors blocked an intersection in Houston. Their peaceful protest was met with violence at the hands of the Houston police. As the janitors sat peacefully in the intersection, Houston police officers on horseback charged at them in an attempt to break apart the demonstration. During this encounter, photographers captured images of protestors being trampled by the horseback police. One of the protestors, an 83 year-old janitor from New York City, was hospitalized from the trampling.


Economic Justice



Group characterization

Janitors from Houston
Mostly Latina women

Additional notes on joining/exiting order

Joining order not known

Segment Length

Approximately 3 months

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

4 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


3 out of 3 points

Total points

8 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

The Justice for Janitors Campaign was able to gain increased wages, longer hours, paid holidays, vacation time, and health insurance. However, full-time work and fully paid health benefits were not part of the deal.

The campaign survived to see increased wages and improved working benefits for the Houston janitors.

The campaign began with disgruntled janitors in Houston; yet at the end of the campaign they had global support with protestors across the world picketing at the international headquarters of the companies with offices in Houston

Database Narrative

In Houston, the largest cleaning companies paid their janitors an average of $5.25 per hour and did not provide health benefits. Meanwhile, in other cities the average salary for a janitor position was between $10-20 an hour and family health benefits were provided. The Service Employee’s International Union (SEIU), under the leadership of its president, Stephen Lerner, utilized the Justice for Janitors Campaign, which involved over 200,000 janitors in more than 28 cities across the United States, to fight to improve the working conditions and benefits for these workers.

The campaign in Houston began on April 30, 2005, with Houston’s janitors (predominantly Latina females) publicly speaking out against the large cleaning companies. By July, there were hundreds of people from the community supporting the janitors in their quest for improved benefits. These supporters came in the form of local community leaders, religious leaders, elected leaders, churches, and local organizations that pledged their support for the janitors’ cause.

In addition to this local support, there was also support on a national and international level from union workers. Internationally, union workers would picket outside the multinational companies that owned the Houston towers where the janitors worked. On the national level, in addition to the picketing that occurred, support came from Democratic congressional leaders, who pushed to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour. Furthermore, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) made a plea to the Greater Houston Partnership, the voice of the business community, to press cleaning contractors to meet the demands of the striking janitors.

The janitors’ goal was to secure family health care, fair wages, full-time work (instead of only 4-hour shifts), and better working conditions. Specifically, the Houston janitors demanded $8.50 an hour with health insurance. This increase in wages, benefits, and hours would equal a 60 percent pay increase. In order to achieve these goals, Justice for Janitors organized the local janitors in 2005, and on October 23, 2006, over 1,700 Houston janitors began a strike. The Houston janitors used noisy protests and civil disobedience while walking off the job. In response to this strike, the Houston companies simply hired replacement workers.

Houston strikers marched across the city with makeshift drums and maracas to make noise in protest of their working conditions. On November 15, 2006, several hundred protesters gathered outside Chevron headquarters (a company that employed the striking Janitors) and protested with these noisemakers. At this demonstration, 14 out-of-town protesters were arrested for chaining themselves to the front door of the building. Days later, 46 protesters from across the country were arrested when they blocked a downtown Houston intersection. These protesters, who came from all across the country to aid the Houston janitors, became known as “freedom flyers” to the SEIU.

Unfortunately for the protesters that blocked the intersection, their peaceful protest was met with violence at the hands of the Houston police. As the janitors sat peacefully in the intersection, Houston police officers on horseback charged at them in an attempt to break apart the demonstration. During this encounter, photographers captured images of protesters being trampled by the horseback police. One of the protesters, an 83 year-old janitor from New York City, was hospitalized from the attack.

One of the prime tactics being used by the SEIU and the Houston janitors was leveraging the media attention to shame the wealthy business leaders with international publicity about the poverty level of their cleaning staff. For example, the campaign told the media about a Salvadoran immigrant that worked four-hour shifts cleaning an office building and was diagnosed with breast cancer, yet received no health insurance.

For three weeks these janitors remained on strike and staged numerous demonstrations until an agreement was reached with the cleaning companies. Under the deal, the janitors’ hourly wages would increase to $7.75 over two years. The cleaning companies also agreed to offer longer hours, paid holidays, vacation time, and health insurance starting in 2009. Although this campaign was extremely successful, with many gains being achieved by the striking janitors, not every demand was met. For example, the companies refused to guarantee full-time work to the janitors or to fully pay for their health benefits.


This campaign was part of the Justice For Janitors Movement, which included campaigns like "Los Angleles Justice for Janitors campaign for economic justice at Century City, 1989-1990" and "University of Miami janitors campaign for economic justice, 2005-2006". (1,2)


<http://www.houstonjanitors.org/janitors-call-7162005/> Accessed 30 Nov 2009

“Justice for Janitors: Houston Janitors Claim Victory in Landmark Strike.” Democracy Now! Posted online November 21, 2006.

Moreno, Sylvia and Russakoff, Dale. “Labor’s Gambit in Houston: A Service Union Has Organized the City’s Janitors and Taken Their Fight Global.” November 17, 2006. Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/16/AR2006111601765,html

Additional Notes

Edited by Max Rennebohm (11/08/2011)

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Gavin Musynske, 30/11/2009