The workers, who last year won their fight to be represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), ended a monthlong strike by voting to accept a three-year contract that provides for improved wages, increased hours, paid holidays, and access to health insurance. The contract covers 5,300 janitors who work for the five largest cleaning companies in the Houston area.
Under terms of the settlement, janitors pay will increase from an average of $5.30 to $6.25 an hour on January 1, rising to $7.75 over a couple years. Their daily work schedule will increase in two years to six hours from their current four hours.
Janitors will receive six paid holidays per year, and will be able to accrue paid vacation time. Starting in 2009, workers individual health insurance will be available for $20 per month, while family insurance will cost $175 a month.
"We have much, much more to gain, but this contract is important, it's the beginning," said Concepción Landés, one of the 1,700 janitors who went on strike.
After their vote to ratify the contract and the short victory rally that followed, the union janitors broke down into their squads as they had done throughout the strike. There they discussed how to organize to return to work and what to expect on the first day back on the job. They all signed cards to make clear to the companies that they are union members.
Throughout the strike the workers organized actionsfrom picket lines to rallies, marches, and sit-insthat reached out to fellow unionists, students, and other supporters. Company representatives threatened strikers, the majority of whom are immigrants.
On November 16, Houston copsa number mounted on horsesbacked up the companies in the strike, arresting 44 unionists and supporters and injuring at least four in attacks on union picketing activities.
"Through it all," Landés said, "We were organized and confident, and we won."
"They thought we would never stay united, Flor Aguilar, a janitor who was a member of the bargaining committee, told the Militant. They thought they could bully us into backing down, but they were wrong."
The unionists campaigned for more than a year and a half before the strike, organizing rallies and demonstrations, first to gain union recognition and then for a contract. They organized contingents in the mass demonstrations for the legalization of undocumented immigrants on April 10 and May 1 as well as on September 4.
With the new contract, the SEIU now organizes janitorial workers at nearly 75 percent of the office buildings in Houston. Union organizers now say they will set their sights on the smaller cleaning companies in town.
The janitors victory was enthusiastically welcomed by workers here. Many have been closely watching their actions. Ercilio Romero, a garment worker, told of the discussion in his workplace, "This really raised our spiritsit's what workers needed to gain confidence to carry out the same fight. We can see that yes, we can do it."
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On the Picket Line
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