As it tries to ramp up public pressure against cleaning companies, the union seeking a new contract for 3,200 Houston janitors is meeting impediments it didn’t face six years ago when it won its first contract.
The Service Employees International Union has expanded impromptu strikes at the large office buildings its janitors clean. It also has disrupted meetings and has conducted traffic-blocking demonstrations that have led to 18 arrests as it seeks to increase what it calls “street heat” against business owners and cleaning contractors.
For several reasons, however, the janitors aren’t much closer to wage increases and other benefits than they were when the union left the bargaining table in mid-May, two weeks before its contract expired.
Union contractors don’t control as much of the cleaning market as they did in 2006, for one thing. And despite escalating walkouts, buildings are still getting cleaned. SEIU also faces distractions in Chicago, where city officials are considering awarding cleaning duties to a nonunion contractor at O’Hare International Airport.
“I don’t sense the same kind of pressure” as in 2006, said management lawyer Bill Bux of the firm Locke Lord. That year, he said, some clients were “scared to death” about such job actions as picketing and disruptions in buildings.
“Now they’re realizing SEIU is a paper tiger,” said Bux, who isn’t involved in the negotiations.
And, he said, it’s harder for the union members to win sympathy in an economy where many people work full time at lower wages than the union janitors.
In 2006, five union companies controlled 72 percent of the local market for cleaning offices larger than 100,000 square feet.
Today, union companies control 67 percent of that market, according to SEIU spokeswoman Renee Asher.
Six years ago SEIU was negotiating on behalf of 5,300 cleaners, compared with the 3,200 today. And the SEIU counts 40 percent of those as members.
Asher believes the strike will be settled when the big building owners – who want to be perceived as good corporate citizens -tell the contractors to pay higher wages. It will take pressure from the community, she said.
But Julius Getman, a labor specialist at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, speculates that SEIU has been focusing more on a top-down hierarchy rather than building from the bottom up.
“If you’re doing a sit-down and you are not having the rank and file participate, that’s a bad sign,” said Getman, referring to this week’s arrests in Houston of several out-of-state protesters – none of whom were janitors.
“It’s like ‘Hamlet’ without Hamlet if you don’t have your members committed to the union and willing to struggle on its behalf,” said Getman, author of “Restoring the Power of Unions: It takes a Movement.”
In a recent letter to its customers, the Houston Area Contractors Association said strike participation has been limited to a handful of one-day actions at selected sites and that the work is still getting done.
“Although the SEIU has been touting high participation, we estimate that some 98 percent of available staff have ignored the purported ‘city-wide strike,'” according to the letter.
Asher disputed the notion that janitor participation is weak.
“Building owners always say that,” she said.
At least 400 Houston janitors are on strike, said Asher, adding that even replacement workers have walked out.
The janitors, who earn a top wage of $8.35 an hour, are seeking $10 an hour. While the contractors and janitors were far apart on the wage issue, another point is a deal-breaker.
Union officials object to contractors’ interpretation that a clause in the previous contract, which contractors want included in a new one, would allow them to pay less-than-union wages if they were bidding for a job against a non-union contractor.
“Contractors could bid non-union anytime and anywhere,” said Asher. “It would lower standards tremendously.”
The janitors are represented by SEIU Local 1, which is based in Chicago. Tom Balanoff is the president of the local and the chief negotiator for the janitors in Houston.
He and Local 1 have had their hands full in Chicago, however, as the city is weighing whether to accept a cheaper bid from a non-union cleaning company at O’Hare Airport. The move would mean the loss of jobs for union janitors.
Sarah Hamilton, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said the city is still evaluating its options, but must award the contract to the lowest “responsible” bidder.