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Tactical Strike

The history of labor is partly a history of violence, and the recent janitors' strike in Houston was no exception. "The horses came on all of the sudden," said Mateo Portilla, a janitor who described how police broke up the protests, causing at least one person to be hospitalized. "They started jumping on top of people. I heard the women screaming." Another demonstrator, Anna Denise Solis, described her night in prison, where protestors faced bail of more than $800,000 apiece: "The first night they put the temperature so high that a woman--one of the other inmates--had a seizure. ...The guards would tell us, 'This is what you get for protesting.'"

In the end, the Houston janitors won their strike. They posted their stories online, they appealed to community leaders, they pressured the building owners who hired the cleaning companies, they held mass demonstrations in the streets, and, eventually, their employers relented. But what did the strikers win? The janitors will see their pay rise from $5.30 an hour to $7.75 by 2009, and their work day will increase from four hours to six--still much less than what unionized janitors in other cities get. They will receive health insurance, but they will have to pay for it. All of this makes a big difference to someone earning starvation wages, but even a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking the victory underwhelming on the whole.

That view, however, would be quite wrong. The Houston strike, which was led by the Service Employee International Union (SEIU), may well have consequences that extend far beyond its immediate benefits for the janitors. SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign has shown how service unions, at least, can still thrive in an era of increased globalization and corporate power. And, significantly, the win demonstrates that organized labor can make further inroads in the South--a region that has historically distrusted unions. At a time when many progressives are ready to cede the South to the Republican Party, that fact alone suggests that such calls may be premature.

Throughout the twentieth century, the South has posed a daunting challenge for labor. In the postwar era, the Congress of Industrial Organizations embarked on a campaign to organize Southern industry, but "Operation Dixie" foundered when, among other things, the federation was weakened by cold war purges that expelled many of its most talented members. The South hence was known as a largely union-free region, where businesses could relocate in order to avoid organizing drives. To this day, unions appear unduly intimidated by the South. "I remember trying to convince hotel unions that San Antonio workers were ripe for organizing," says Julius Getman, a labor law professor at the University of Texas School of Law. "And they were very reluctant. They said they don't want to go into a place where they don't already have power."

But, in 2004, at their annual convention in San Francisco, SEIU leaders vowed to make a renewed push into Dixie. The next fall, SEIU won union recognition for 5,300 janitors in Houston--the largest organization effort in the South in years. Several labor leaders told me that Southern workers have mainly been reluctant to organize, because they've seen the effort fail so many times and don't want to risk losing their jobs. But the Houston janitors have, at the very least, set a example to the contrary. "They get the foot in the door, get a decent contract, and use that as a marketing tool to show workers in other cities how successful they were," one consultant for a union-busting firm told the Houston Chronicle. "Their cry will be, 'We can do it in Houston, we can do it wherever you are--in Birmingham or Atlanta.'"

Not only that, but securing a beachhead in the South can have practical consequences. Organizing and winning contracts for 5,300 janitors may not look like much. (To put it in perspective, labor would need to organize 1.5 million workers next year alone just to raise union density in the workplace by a scant 1 percent.) But the new union can, in the future, provide both political and material support for other organizing efforts in the city. (SEIU, for instance, will potentially collect tens of thousands of dollars in dues from its newly covered janitors to promote union activities in Houston, although, because Texas--like many Southern states--is a right-to-work state, janitors aren't obligated to join the union.) If handled properly, unions could maintain momentum in Houston and beyond.

That's important, because the South looks increasingly ripe for organizing. The region has the lowest median income in the country, and, according to a 2005 Pew poll, 83 percent of "pro-government conservatives"--many of whom are Southerners--are suspicious of corporations. Demographics also matter. "If you look at the new face of the South, there are many more immigrants, many more Catholics--the same sort of people who built the labor movement in the twentieth century," says Getman. "There's no doubt that, in the Hispanic community, for instance, there are very strong communal ties, and a sense of solidarity already built in." Indeed, Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at UCLA, has described vividly how Latino immigrants revitalized organized labor in Los Angeles. A similar blossoming of unions in the South could form the basis for a new progressive movement in the region.

It's not enough, however, to have a receptive audience. Unions still need a strategy to overcome opposition from businesses and conservative political leaders. And that's where SEIU comes in. Over the last 20 years, the Justice for Janitors campaign has organized janitors in more than 28 cities. Early on, the SEIU failed to organize in Houston and Atlanta, but the union continued to refine its tactics in the North and the West: It would organize all of the major cleaning contractors in the city at once, so that no single employer would have to worry about being put at a disadvantage by paying union wages and benefits. Organizers would also form coalitions with community groups to pressure building owners into accepting higher cleaning costs.

So why did SEIU choose Houston for its latest foray into the South? Partly, the political atmosphere in the country's fourth-largest city has been changing--because of immigration, Houston has become a nearly majority-minority city with a Democratic mayor. Structural factors also played a role. "What's fascinating about Houston is that all the major building owners and all the major cleaning contractors were national and international corporations that were unionized everywhere but Houston," explains Stephen Lerner, the director of the Justice for Janitors campaign. "So we felt we could use our strength in other cities to pressure these companies."

That's just what SEIU did, working to shame Houston's real-estate moguls by picketing their office buildings in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. Workers as far away as Berlin and Moscow distributed leaflets outside buildings owned by Hines Interests, a major developer in Houston. Interestingly, the consolidation of the real estate industry has actually helped the janitors' union, as it has led to a similar consolidation in the cleaning industry--building owners prefer working with the same contractors in all of their locations--and allowed unions to bring national, and even international, resources to bear on a local campaign. Increasingly, SEIU is knitting alliances with unions overseas to exploit these sorts of connections.

The Justice for Janitors campaign also made sure that the strike wasn't narrowly focused. "We don't talk about these strikes as union campaigns," says Lerner. "We treat them as civil rights campaigns. Workers talk as much about coming out of the shadows and being respected as they did about making $5.30 an hour." Although a large number of the janitors in Houston were Latino immigrants, SEIU received support from the black community--contrary to the perception that the two groups are always at odds--and the city's religious leaders. The Archbishop of Houston even spoke out at the janitors' opening convention, declaring, "God is not happy when his children are not treated well."

The Justice for Janitors campaign cannot, of course, bring about a resurgence of organized labor in the South on its own. Not all Southern employers contract with multinational corporations that can be shamed by global campaigns, as the major cleaning companies in Houston were. The janitors strike can't stop the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, a trend that has taken a severe toll on union density. And other labor leaders have not yet displayed the same tactical creativity SEIU has. Too many unions still cling to the idea that striking just entails walking out of the job and hoping for the best. Too often, the employer simply hires replacement workers, and that's that, as happened in the Northwest Airlines mechanics' strike that captured headlines last year. "If we had tried that, we would have lost," says Lerner. (In fact, that's more or less what SEIU tried in its failed 1985 Houston campaign.)

For all those hurdles, however, SEIU's latest foray into the South represents, perhaps, one of the brightest prospects for labor. True, Democrats in Congress have promised to pass card-check legislation, allowing a workplace to unionize if a majority of employees sign cards saying they want to do so. (Currently, workers seeking to organize must endure a long, drawn-out election subject to employer manipulation and union-busting tactics.) That would have a more significant impact on organizing, but the current White House is almost certain to veto the bill. In the meantime, workers will have to fight for decent pay and benefits the old-fashioned way--by taking to the streets. And, for a change, there's reason for optimism, however modest.

Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor at The New Republic.