Sunday, December 04, 2005

Organizing Victory in Houston (Texas?)

Lots of travel, so slow blogging lately. A bit of catching up to do. As you've probably heard by now, 5,000 Houston janitors have won the right to begin negotiations with their employers for higher pay and benefits. The janitors currently earn an average hourly wage of $5.30 -- just 15 cents more than minimum wage -- and receive no health care benefits. And, as readers of Confined Space know, in addition to wage and benefit increases, the best thing about unions is also an enhanced ability to fight for safer working conditions.

Meanwhile, representatives of Locke Liddell & Sapp, Harriet Miers' (remember her?) old law firm, which headed up the anti-union campaign, predictably predicted that the sky would fall:
Bill Bux, head of the labor and employment law section at Locke Liddell & Sapp, said the next significant event in this campaign will be the reaction from building owners, once negotiations with the cleaning companies are finished.

In some cases, the cleaning companies have "cost-plus" contracts with building owners that could allow them to benefit from the high-wage costs, SEIU's Schlademan said. That means the cost to the building owners could rise.

Will the building owners pass along the increased costs to tenants or will they find another nonunion company? Bux asked. Many building leases have "pass through" provisions that allow the owners to automatically pass along increases in bills such as utilities and cleaning services to their tenants.

If the cost gets too high, some tenants may not be able to afford to stay when it's time to renew their lease, Bux said.

Small businesses that lease space in downtown high-rises will be especially hurt by the increased costs, "that'll go right to their bottom lines."

"This will hurt a lot of different groups," he said. "There are a lot of dynamics."
Now, I find this a bit hard to believe. Right now we're talking about 5,000 janitors making $5.50 an hour, which means that just a $1 an hour raise means a 20% raise. I haven't done the math, but I find it hard to believe that the oil-rich (and getting richer) economy of Houston can't absorb that without major hardship. And Bux admits that large firms such as his aren't about to move just because their janitorial bill goes up.

But, as Houston Chronicle labor reporter LM Sixel describes, the guessing game has already begun about what the union will get in terms of wage increases and/or health care benefits. Management is predicting not much, although SEIU points out that there is precident for significant improvement:
SEIU spokesman Andy McDonald said the union is getting health insurance for its members, along with significant wage hikes.

McDonald pointed to a union drive in Orange County, Calif., in which 2,000 janitors went from $5.15 an hour five years ago to $8.65 today. And the janitors who started with no health insurance and no benefits, now have paid family coverage, six paid holidays and one sick day.

Health care is a huge priority for the janitors — and it's something every Houstonian should be concerned with, McDonald said. Unless employers provide the coverage, taxpayers and businesses will continue to foot the bill for the uninsured.
There is, however, trouble in paradise. Relations between the Change to Win, of which SEIU is a member, and the AFL-CIO are continuing to deteriorate in Houston:
Conspicuously absent from Wednesday's event, however, were representatives of the Harris County AFL-CIO which had paved the way for SEIU when it quietly began planning its Justice for Janitors campaign two years ago.

The janitors need a union, said Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO. But he said SEIU, which left the federation in July along with three other unions, is betraying the labor federation in its efforts to recruit city government workers who have long been represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

But Shaw gave SEIU credit.

The last time labor had accomplished anything this big was 25 years ago, he said.

In the late 1970s, the AFL-CIO put $20 million toward the Houston Organizing Project, which brought significant gains among public school teachers and government employees.
Other stories and signficant blog contributions:

Steven Greenhouse in the New York Times thinks this is a tremendous victory of historic proporations:
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. With work force experts saying that unions face a slow death unless they can figure out how to organize private-sector workers in big bunches, 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.

"It's the largest unionization campaign in the South in years," said Julius Getman, a labor law professor at the University of Texas. "Other unions will say, 'Yes, it can be done here.' "
But Jonathan Tasini cautions that the number organized is small:
Now, not to rain on the parade of an important organizing drive, Greenhouse fails to put this in context, other than the usual analysis about what this means for organizing in the South: while 5,000 new members is nothing to sneeze at, we need to keep in mind that, as a whole, organized labor needs to recruit a NET of 1.5 million members a year to raise its overall density in the workforce by just ONE PERCENT. So, in essence, we need a Houston janitors' victory almost every day to grow the labor movement's power.
Nathan Newman, on the other hand, explains why the victory is much more significant than only 5,000 new members sounds, particularly because it took place in the underunionized South.
And in the shorter term, just think of the Houston janitors as a beachhead in hostile territory. We can sometime look at the numbers and forget how significant even a small union presence can be in an area with very little organizing at all. Do these numbers-- janitors pay dues of roughly $20 per month, or a bit over $200 per year. Multiply by 5000 and you suddenly have an organization with $1 million per year to promote organizing and political mobilization in the Houston area.

Add a few more around the region and you've added what will automatically become major new political and social institutions in regions that now lack them. Just by existing, the Houston janitors will be an example to other workers that they can organize and they can win even in the South-- a key message for any hope of labor revival.

So yes, 5000 Houston janitors is a tremendous victory of historic proportions.
Matt Stoller in MyDD discusses how money, organizing, media and leadership skills make labor indispensiable to the Democratic party and progressive movement:
Unions are an organized constituency group that can organize other groups into political coalitions that help Democrats; without them we lose. It's that simple. So while musing about car companies closing is important, using that fact to dismiss what could be a model for a newly unionized American workforce is incredibly foolish. If you are a liberal and you write off unions, you are writing your own political obituary. Also, if you consider that the future of political campaigns lies in door walks, the internet, and social organizations, labor unions look more and more important for any progressive coalition.