The lessons we can learn from the Houston janitors
by Matt Stoller, Wed Nov 22, 2006 at 11:49:41 AM EST
This is a guest-post from Stephen Lerner. Lerner is Director of SEIU's Property Services Division. With 1.8 million members, SEIU is the largest and fastest-growing union in America.
Today, 5,300 of Houston's janitors work part-time, are paid just $20 a day and get no health insurance for scrubbing the floors and cleaning the toilets of some of the wealthiest corporations in America. Within 24 months, the workers' income will double and they will have secure, affordable health insurance. Why? They joined together, formed a union, and fought like hell to win a new labor contract that guarantees those things and more.
The janitors' seemingly unlikely victory teaches some important lessons because it tears down some conventional wisdom about what it is going to take to change our country.
1) Houston janitors are a beacon of hope for all of us. The janitors' victory proves that just because you live in the South where workers' wages have been kept low and rights have been stifled by anti-union corporations helped by anti-worker politicians, doesn't mean you can't have the same shot at the American Dream as workers everywhere. These janitors had everything working against them: They are low-wage, part-time workers, the majority of them are recent immigrants, and they were up against some of the richest corporations in the world, like the big oil company Chevron. The conventional wisdom says any one of these obstacles by itself would have made victory impossible. But they won, because they had a strategy. Backed by the right strategy, workers can win - in the South, or anywhere.
2) The high number of uninsured is indefensible. From the beginning, affordable health care was a critical goal for the janitors. A contract without health care would have been unacceptable. And the janitors were not alone - in the very first week of the strike, Houston's mayor publicly argued that these workers must have health insurance. He understood - as more politicians are beginning to understand - that the cost of the uninsured is passed on to all of us, and it's a problem that needs to be addressed by covering more people, not less. Ultimately Houston's largest corporations, whether they agreed or not, were not willing to have that debate.
3) The need for better jobs crosses racial lines. Too often, African Americans and Latino immigrants have been pitted against one another, fighting over bad jobs that don't pay enough and don't offer health care. But in the Houston strike, "black and brown" national leaders united to support this largely immigrant workforce. Dozens of African American leaders - many of them veterans of the civil rights movement of the 1960s - lent their support to help these mostly Latina women win better jobs. And it's no coincidence that many of the same non-violent, civil disobedience tactics that helped spur the civil rights movement were also effective in Houston.
4) Globalization can be a tool for workers to raise their living standards. It used to be that to win a union contract, workers just had to join with co-workers in their building or factory. Not any more. Like manufacturing did before, the service industry is nationalizing and globalizing. Houston janitors were able to draw on the strength of SEIU janitors from throughout the US who work for the same employers in buildings owned by the same multinational real estate landlords. Globally, union workers in Mexico City, Moscow, London, and Berlin held actions in support of Houston strikers. The workers get it - they know that if their multinational employers are holding wages down in Houston, their own living standards are on the line. With the service economy going global, janitors and other workers have the opportunity to turn globalization on its head and use it as a tool to improve their lives.
So what does this all mean? Working people in this country are hungry for change. We saw it in the election, when voters, 80% of whom listed economic issues as "extremely" or "very important," elected a new Congress that campaigned explicitly on issues of raising the minimum wage and health care. We definitely saw it in the thousands of Houston janitors willing to risk everything to change their lives and win a better future for themselves and their families.
And with the Houston janitors' victory, we see that unions, with the right strategies, can be a vehicle to unite workers and their allies in a real movement for economic and social justice.