God at work among the janitors

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Most if not all of the business people I know have not had a good word to say about labor unions for decades. It seemed that the glory days of union-organizing, immortalized in the movie Norma Rae, were long gone. But as long as we live in Advent (between the Comings) there is going to be a need for the poor and exploited to have a union. Here are some excerpts from an article describing the role of the church and its teachings in Houston:

Janitors’ Drive in Texas Gives Hope to Unions
By Steven Greenhouse
New York Times, November 28, 2005

Union organizers have obtained what they say is majority support in one of the biggest unionization drives in the South in decades, collecting the signatures of thousands of Houston janitors…

In an era when unions typically face frustration and failure in attracting workers in the private sector, the Service Employees International Union is bringing in 5,000 janitors from several companies at once….labor leaders are looking to the Houston campaign as a model.

The service employees, which led a breakaway of four unions from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. last summer, has used several unusual tactics in Houston, among them lining up the support of religious leaders, pension funds and the city’s mayor, Bill White, a Democrat. Making the effort even more unusual has been the union’s success in a state that has long been hostile to labor…

The service employees’ success comes as the percentage of private-sector workers in unions has dropped to 7.9 percent, the lowest rate in more than a century…

With its campaign to organize the janitors, the union has focused on two groups it says are pivotal if labor is to grow again: low-wage workers and immigrants. The janitors, nearly all of them immigrants, earn just over $100 a week on average, usually working part time for $5.25 an hour.

Some of Houston’s business leaders oppose the unionization drive, saying its pledge of higher wages may hurt business.

“I don’t see how it’s going to help Houston from a business standpoint,” said Mark Jodon, a Houston lawyer who represents employers. “It has the potential of raising the cost of doing business.”

Flora Aguilar, a Mexican immigrant who cleans an office tower for $5.25 an hour, volunteered to help the organizing drive as soon as the union gave the janitors questionnaires asking what aspects of their jobs they thought needed improvement.

“The wages are terrible, there are no benefits, there’s nothing,” Ms. Aguilar said. “I have to stretch myself like a rubber band to make ends meet. I want a union because it will give me a better life.”

…Even if the union is recognized, it still faces a big obstacle in negotiating a contract that delivers some of the hoped-for improvements in wages and benefits. Yet the union’s Texas achievement stands in stark contrast to the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s failed drive in the early 1980’s, which sought to recruit tens of thousands of Houston workers…

Workers were told of the union’s success in New Jersey, where the salaries of 4,500 recently organized janitors had risen to $11.90 an hour from $5.85 an hour three years ago, and where many part-time workers had been converted to full-time status with health benefits.

The union announced its campaign last April, but two years earlier, it sent a community liaison to Houston who helped line up backing from the city’s mayor, several congressmen and dozens of clergymen, including the Roman Catholic archbishop, Joseph A. Fiorenza. The archbishop even celebrated a special Mass for janitors in August and spoke at the union’s kickoff rally, telling the janitors that God was unhappy that they earned so little and did not have health coverage. “They work for the same companies that are in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, and their counterparts there are getting much higher salaries,” Archbishop Fiorenza said in an interview. “It’s just basic justice and fairness that the wages should be increased here.”

But business leaders say the wages are consistent with what other unskilled workers earn.

“The wages that are paid in Houston to janitors are generally above minimum wage,” said Tammy Bettancourt, executive vice president of the Houston Building Owners and Managers Association. “Their wages are very much in line with every other part-time job and with the city’s retailers. That’s what the market dictates.”

Ercilia Sandoval, who cleans offices in a prime office tower, says she has not had a raise in eight years and does not have health insurance. A school dentist recently found that her 7-year-old daughter had six cavities, and fillings will cost $750, when her weekly take-home pay is $91.50.

“Everything has gone up except our wages,” Ms. Sandoval said. “If we ask for a raise, they say, ‘Anyone who doesn’t like it here, there’s the door.’ “

….Expanding on the Houston effort, the service employees hope to unionize 4,000 janitors in Atlanta, 2,000 in Phoenix and tens of thousands of shopping mall janitors nationwide. But even the service employees have encountered problems. For instance, their effort to organize 7,000 condominium workers in Miami has stalled because of opposition from the largest property management company there.

Still, the Houston effort has gone more smoothly than union officials had expected.

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