Nearly 5,000 janitors in Houston have joined union ranks in one of the most successful organizing drives ever in the southern United States.
In November, just a few months after the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began an organizing drive,4,700 mostly Latino janitors secured the right to bargain collectively. Thejanitors, who make up 62 percent of the city's janitorial work force and clean four of the largest buildings in Houston, earn one of the country's lowest pay rates—an average of $5.30 an hour or $100per week—and do not receive health-care benefits. Texas, like much of the South, has a low rate of unionization.
The janitors work for the same companies that employ unionized workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, andNew York, where they are paid a higher wage; janitors in New York City earn an average $20 an hour, while janitors in Chicago are paid $13.30 an hour. SEIU janitors staged sympathy walkouts in28 other cities and honored the picket lines of Houston janitors during a 10-day strike. The union also garnered support from local religious and community leaders, pension funds, and politicians, including the city's mayor.
Negotiations for a contract are expected to begin soon in Houston,while SEIU is also trying to use the momentum from the victory to unionize janitors in Atlanta, Phoenix, and in shopping malls nationwide.
SEIU currently represents 1.8 million workers across the country. The union recently broke away from the AFL-CIO to form Change to Win, a federation of seven unions that together represent 5.4 million workers.