Houston janitors campaign for economic justice, 2005-2006

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Time Period:  
April 30,
November 21,
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Houston, Texas
Paid family health insurance, increased wages (to $8.50 an hour), full-time work, and better working conditions

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.

Research Notes

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