Have you been following reports on the now 2-week-old strike by janitors in Houston, Texas?
I saw the latest report in the papers this past Sunday. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organized the strike that last week shut down one of the busiest intersections in the city.
Obviously, one purpose of the strike is a call for higher wages and more hours. The workers seek wages of $8.50 an hour, more guaranteed work hours and medical benefits.
But, this strike seems to go beyond these traditional aspects of a labor agenda.
Respect for human dignity is central to this labor action.
According to Stephen Lerner, director of SEIU's national Justice for Janitors campaign, "The strike here is about thousands of workers being seen as full human beings, full participants in the life of our country. Are we going to lift the poor up or dig in and start pushing them further into poverty?"
Important question, at least I would think.
Beyond this, the strike is evidence of the growing connection between labor unions and immigrants. SEIU represents over 5,300 janitors in Houston alone. Most of these workers are female immigrants. The union in this case has worked very closely with community organizations and churches that serve this segment of the city's population.
The strike against the five largest cleaning companies began on October 23. Houston janitors make an average of $5.30 per hour, are limited to part-time work and receive no health benefits.
One contention of the union is that employees of the same companies working in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago earn more than twice this amount and receive health care benefits.
A report in The Dallas Morning News ("Houston janitors' strike goes deeper than wages," Sunday, November 5, 2006, 3A) tells the story of Mercedes Herrera.
Ms. Herrera has worked as a janitor for 5 years.
She earns $5.15 an hour and is allowed to work only 4 1/2 hours a day. During her short shift, she is expected to clean nine floors of a downtown office building, including 18 bathrooms!
"This is a struggle we are all involved in because we are working for a cause," she said. "We are not invisible people, ghosts or robots who clean buildings. We have families. We have rights. We are not like toilet tissue that you use and throw away."
Compelling story. Lots of courage here, don't you think?
It has me wondering. . .
What does faith say about labor?
About labor actions and unions?
About fair wages?
Where is the church and its voice on these issues?