In Minneapolis, a picket line for striking Houston janitors

Yesenia Romero, a union janitor from Houston, addresses activists on the picket line outside U.S. Bancorp Center downtown Minneapolis.

The union representing more than 400 striking janitors in Houston is fanning out across the country this week, setting up solidarity picket lines outside buildings cleaned by contractors involved in their dispute back home.

In Minneapolis yesterday, about 40 union members and supporters picketed outside U.S. Bancorp Center, which secures its cleaning services through ABM, one of seven contractors involved in negotiations in Houston. Similar actions took place yesterday in Washington D.C., Seattle, Oakland and Boston. Unions in Los Angeles and Denver planned to follow suit today.

Activists in Minneapolis said it would take nationwide support for workers to win their dispute with a nationwide company like ABM.

“You may be asking yourselves, why does this matter to us here in Minnesota?” said Adam Robinson, an organizer with the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation. “The answer is this: Many of the same cleaning companies and building owners in Houston do business here in Minnesota too, like ABM.”

If ABM is successful in squeezing janitors in Houston – who earn as little as $9,000 per year – the company may try to do the same to janitors in Minneapolis, Robinson added.

“It is a moral threat,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves, how long will we allow the richest 1 percent to dominate our politics, wreck our economy and keep our jobs so low-paying that so many of our brothers and sisters are in poverty?”

Wages are at the heart of the work stoppage in Houston, which began July 11, about six weeks after janitors’ previous contract with the cleaning contractors expired.

Local 1 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents striking workers, reports that janitors are seeking a gradual increase in their average hourly wage, from $8.35 to $10, to be phased in over four years.

Supporters join the picket line outside U.S. Bancorp Center.

The contractors responded by offering a raise of 50 cents over five years – an offer the union called “an almost certain promise that janitors will continue to live in poverty.”

Yesenia Romero, a Houston janitor who made the trip to Minneapolis for yesterday’s event, accused ABM and other contractors of trying to intimidate and harass janitors into accepting their offer. She suspects contractors are trying to break the janitors’ union.

“What’s happening in Houston right now is that they are actually trying to take the union away from us,” Romero said. “They are giving all sorts of false reports in the buildings.”

Romero said she and her co-workers felt compelled to seek wage increases in negotiations with the cleaning contractors, adding that “it’s just not possible to live” on the wages many janitors currently earn.

Ironically, Houston janitors clean the offices of some of the richest corporations in the world, including Chevron, Hines, Brookfield, Shell Oil and JP Morgan.

More, Houston’s commercial real estate market is among the top in the U.S. in terms of demand. Average commercial rental rates in Houston are higher than rates in Chicago, where janitors are paid more than three times as much as Houston janitors, according to Local 1, which represents union janitors in both cities.

Jolyn Vance, a Local 1 member who traveled from Chicago to Minneapolis for the event yesterday, said the onus is not only on cleaning contractors like ABM, but also on Houston’s profitable companies. Both bear responsibility for keeping the workers who clean Houston’s office buildings out of poverty.

“I think it’s kind of crazy that the companies in Texas, as rich as they are, would fight to keep brothers and sisters who are making $9,000 a year from getting a decent wage,” Vance said.

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