Late Wednesday night, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced a tentative agreement for a two-year contract with private facilities management companies in Houston, Texas.
The deal was made the day after the previous contract for 2,800 city janitors expired. The workers had voted to authorize the strike and were ready to strike Tuesday evening at midnight, but the SEIU kept them on the job while negotiations took place behind the scenes. Before the contract expired, Texas SEIU President Elsa Caballero made it clear that a strike would not occur immediately while negotiations continued.
Under the previous contract, the starting pay for the janitors, largely immigrants, was a starvation ration of just $10.75 an hour. Workers with between one and four years of experience were entitled to only one sick day per year; workers with more than five years of experience received two. The fact that the union was ever able to agree to such terms, which are now even lower than the starting wages of non-union workers at most fast food restaurants across the country (let alone after union dues have been deducted), reveals this as little more than a cheap labor contractor.
The union had said it was pushing for a wage increase to $15 an hour, as well as more sick days. But after the deal was announced, SEIU officials refused to release details of the tentative agreement, on the spurious grounds that it had yet to be ratified by its members. In fact, if the union had obtained these demands, it would be shouting it from the tops of the trees.
Instead, SEIU Texas President Caballero released a cautious statement in which she asserted, “[h]Therefore, after a record marathon negotiation, we were able to reach an agreement in principle which I believe addresses many of their concerns. This strongly suggests that the agreement falls far short of the modest demands raised by the union. Now the SEIU is forcing a snap vote on janitors this weekend, before they’ve had enough time to study it.
But even if the union were able to secure its main demands in the contract – to raise the starting wage from $10.75 to $15.00 an hour and more sick days for workers – that would still leave the janitors in dire financial straits, under conditions of runaway inflation concentrated in fuel, food and other necessities.
For years, the SEIU has been at the forefront of a campaign led by unions and the Democratic Party to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The union has falsely marketed this as a “living wage” but routinely imposes contracts on workers with even lower wages. Meanwhile, the campaign is providing Democrats political cover for their own refusal to raise the minimum wage since 2009, even though it has controlled the White House for nine of the past 13 years.
Instead, Democrats have engaged in various largely token grassroots initiatives to raise starting wages for public employees to $15 an hour. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, for example, recently imposed a starting wage of $15 an hour on city-employed janitors. These movements, which increase starting salary for tiny subsets of the workforce, are universally and falsely portrayed in the press as an increase in the “minimum wage”, the accepted meaning of which for generations has been the legal minimum covering an entire region.
Janitors, like other workers deemed “essential,” have been forced to work throughout the pandemic. They and other housekeeping workers are among the occupations with the highest risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19.
While white-collar workers were able to leave offices in downtown Houston, janitors put their own health and that of their families at risk. Minimum sick leave under the previous contract, combined with wages that let janitors live paycheck to paycheck, created strong financial incentives for them to work through exposure and symptoms. Additionally, the high premium for company-provided health insurance means that most workers cannot even pay for care when they fall ill.
The SEIU’s record is a long history of betrayal of workers’ struggles only to impose sell-out contracts on workers.
When Houston janitors went on strike in 2006, the SEIU demanded a wage increase to $8.15 an hour. But he ended a month-long strike by 5,300 janitors, or about 72% of the city’s janitorial staff, after reaching a deal that would only raise wages to $7.75 over three years. . Following a second strike in 2012, the SEIU agreed to a contract giving workers a pitiful annual raise of 25 cents for four years.
Less than a week ago, the SEIU reached an agreement for a three-year contract covering 7,000 nurses in Los Angeles County, which did not address any of the nurses’ demands for wages or intolerable working conditions. The contract only offered a mere 12% raise over three years, which does not keep pace with inflation, and contained nothing to address the staffing crisis that plagues all hospitals due to stress, overwork and low wages.
In April, the Sacramento City Teachers Association and SEIU called off a teachers’ and school staff’s strike at the last minute, ordering teachers and staff to return to work on less than 12 hours’ notice before even voting. on the agreement. The agreement only provided for a 4% salary increase for the coming year.
Workers cannot leave their struggles under the leadership of deceitful unions. The only path to success available to workers requires that they create their own organizations, independent of corporate unions and the two capitalist parties, to link struggles across the industry and with other workers in the United States and around the world. world.