Governor Mitt Romney got all the press at the NAACP convention in Houston on Wednesday, but janitor Alice McAfee got a standing-o. She spoke to a packed auditorium about her plight and that of over 3,000 fellow janitors in the city.
The Houston janitors are currently paid an hourly wage of $8.35 and earn an average of $8,684 annually, despite cleaning the offices of some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world—Chevron, ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo, Shell Oil, JPMorgan Chase and others in the “City of Millionaires.” They are asking building owners and cleaning contractors for a raise to $10 an hour over the next three years; the counter offer is a $0.50 pay raise phased in over five years, virtually guaranteeing that the janitors continue to live in poverty.
On Tuesday, following a month of protests and one-day strikes, 250 janitors in nine buildings walked off the job to begin a citywide strike. By today, janitors from eighteen buildings will have joined the picket line. They are protesting employer harassment—including potential stripping of healthcare benefits and workplace intimidation—in response to the workers’ attempt to improve wages and benefits. The workers won’t return to their jobs until the cleaning contractors return to the bargaining table.
“We think we’ve moved past discrimination but we haven’t,” McAfee told the convention. “Now it’s low-wage workers who are treated like second-class citizens.… This fight is about putting an end to discrimination once and for all—racism, discrimination against immigrants, and discrimination against the working poor. This is about restoring dignity to all work.”
In addition to giving McAfee a standing ovation, audience members started spontaneously handing her cash—and it just kept coming; a total of $3,200 in unsolicited donations will be deposited into the janitors’ strike fund.
I had a chance to speak with Ms. McAfee on the phone yesterday about her experience at the convention, her work, and where the strike is headed. She told me she’s been a janitor in Houston for thirty years.
“And I have never missed a day, I have never been late. I take great pride in my work,” she said.
McAfee works at the Galleria Tower II and describes her job as “very hard, very strenuous.”
“They used to give me five hours to do three floors,” she said. “Now I have four hours for five floors. Something’s wrong with the picture.”
Her voice sounded distinctly elderly to me, and Adriana Vasquez had spoken of older janitors whom she worries about as they tackle grueling work. I asked would she mind telling me her age?
“Tell you what,” she said, “age and weight are two things you don’t ask a lady.”
So we moved on. Like Vasquez, McAfee said she has to literally run to finish her work on time.
“You’re running from the time you get in until the time you leave because if you’re not, no way you’re going to complete the work,” she said. “You got to punch out at 10 pm on the dot or they will write you up for insubordination because you’re not doing what they tell you to do on time. We don’t have no breaks, and when you get finished you’re so tired you need somebody to drive you home.”
Beginning at 6 pm, McAfee’s work includes “heavy floors,” which she describes as “a lot of heavy garbage, boxes, books”—both Wilson Architects and JPMorgan Chase require this kind of labor. (She cleans for Chase on the fourth, twentieth and twenty-first floors. In Congress, CEO Jamie Dimon told Vasquez to call him at his office to discuss the fact that he doesn’t pay his janitors a living wage. So far, however, he hasn’t returned her call.) She cleans kitchenettes; mops the floors; does “high dusting and low dusting”; rids glass desktops of finger smudges; cleans and dusts pictures.
“I take great pride in my work and I like to do it right,” McAfee said. “But now that they have cut the hours and increased the workload, there’s just no way for me to do it the way I want to. I’m doing eight to twelve hours work in four hours, and it’s just impossible.”
McAfee said she has been “targeted” since joining the union. Not only did her employer then increase her workload and cut her hours, her supervisor said she “wants me off the job.”
“But I do my work, stay focused, stay prayed up and move on,” said McAfee.
Moving on this week meant telling the NAACP and others her story.
“People need to know we are professional janitors and when we go to work, we work hard,” she said. “Right now we’re needing to choose between turning on our AC, or our box fan, and buying gas. We give building owners and CEOs an honest day’s work and we are only asking for a fair, honest day’s pay in return.”
Denver janitors to show support for Houston counterparts with strike
Although they recently signed a new contract that helped avert a citywide strike, Denver janitors will stage a protest this Thursday to show solidarity with striking janitors in Houston.
Janitors in Denver, members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 105, join their counterparts in Los Angeles in saying they will not cross picket lines on Thursday to show support for more than 400 Houston janitors who are now in the second week of their strike over a new contract and a pay raise.
It is not clear whether Denver janitors will participate in a one-day or extended protest.
Houston janitors say their contract expired on May 31 of this year and they are seeking a raise from $8.35 per hour to $10 to be phased in over 10 years. They say they were offered a raise of slightly more than 50 cents over a five-year period. The Houston janitors say that when they refused they raise, they faces “harassment and intimidation” from employers. They began their strike on July 11.
The participation of Denver and Los Angeles on Thursday will bring to eight the number of cities where janitors have refused to cross a picket line to show support for the Houston janitors. Janitors in Washington, Minneapolis, Boston, Seattle, Oakland and San Ramon have already stated they will support the Houston janitors.
On July 3, Denver janitors signed a tentative contact with janitorial companies in the city only a few hours before their contract was set to expire. The new contract, which affects approximately 2,300 janitors in the city who work in 95 percent of the downtown office buildings, gives them an 8.6 percent wage increase. Janitors who work in suburban buildings received a 7.8 percent raise.
Prior to signing their new contract, Denver janitors staged a protest march through the downtown area that drew more than 650 members.
Despite the new contract for Denver janitors, an SEIU representative in Texas said what is happening there is representative of life for many Americans.
“What’s happening here in Houston is a microcosm of what’s happening to our whole country,” Elsa Caballero, State Director for SEIU Local 1 Texas said. “The gap between the richest 1% and working families is growing every day. It’s going to take bold action to rebuild our country’s middle class.”