HOUSTON — In a major step for labor in this right-to-work city, striking janitors reached an agreement with five major cleaning companies Monday on a contract that guarantees the workers higher wages, more work hours and medical benefits.
About 1,700 janitors walked off the job Oct. 23 after talks broke down, and have staged high-profile demonstrations in a city unaccustomed to noisy displays of civil disobedience.
Strikers dragged garbage cans and trash bags into a busy intersection, then handcuffed themselves to each other and the cans. In another action, they pushed trash bins, mop buckets and brooms through downtown Houston during rush hour.
The janitors make an average of $5.15 an hour, half the wage of their counterparts in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
The contract is a first for the 5,300 Houston janitors who affiliated with the Service Employees International Union last year. Under the agreement, pay for SEIU janitors will increase to $6.25 an hour on Jan. 1. That will go up to $7.25 an hour in 2008, and $7.75 in 2009.
The settlement also guarantees more work hours for janitors who have largely been limited to four hours a night. The workers will be covered by health insurance starting Jan. 1, 2009, and will get vacation time and six paid holidays a year.
Janitor Mercedes Herrera, 37, worked for five years cleaning 18 restrooms in four hours, for $5.15 an hour, at a downtown high-rise. "No benefits, no raise, no nothing," she said.
After years of being what she called "an invisible person," Herrera seemed stunned by the victory.
"I'm so happy, I'm so excited," said Herrera, her eyes bright with tears. "We got justice. This will change my life for my family.... We worked hard, and janitors won big."
The union played up the contrast between corporations raking in record profits from high oil prices, and the people who clean their offices living in poverty.
Deacon Sam Dunning, director of the Office of Justice and Peace for the Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, joined politicians and other clergy in urging contractors to "share the largesse."
"What they're asking for is modest by any standard," he said.
Success in Houston could build union momentum elsewhere in the South, said Julius Getman, a labor law professor at the University of Texas School of Law. "It's obviously a major victory. Low-wage workers will hear the message that in solidarity lies strength."
But some will still be frightened, he said. "It's not going to immediately usher in the unionization of the South, but I think it's a significant step."
The Houston strike is the latest for the SEIU, which in the last two decades has launched "Justice for Janitors" campaigns from California to Massachusetts.
The strikers' protests were often held near the offices of large companies the union believed were in a position to push cleaning contractors -- ABM Janitorial Services, GCA Services, OneSource, Sanitors Services of Texas and Pritchard Industries Southwest -- to the bargaining table.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Houston Mayor Bill White said that though he didn't agree with such tactics, he had encouraged the cleaning companies to negotiate with the janitors.
"I consider this a milestone for Houston," he said. "And more importantly, something that will lift the lives of hard-working people who are trying to get by every single day."
Negotiations began Saturday and were all but wrapped up by Sunday afternoon, union officials said. Janitors ratified the agreement Monday evening.
"We have a better future for working families in Houston," said Herrera, a member of the bargaining committee.
At a loss for more words, Herrera pointed to a reporter's notebook. "Just put 'Invisible no more,' " she said.