Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Faith and a janitors' strike in Houston, Texas

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?


Anonymous said...

Wow, being from MI and growing up with the UAW I must say that you have restored my faith in "unions" and what their original purpose was set forth to do. Affirmative Action is at the polls today as well as deciding who to choose to lead our wonderful state out of this horrid economy, part of which I blame on the unions and part of which I blame on the industry. I have been struggling with ideology versus reality and trying to figure out what to vote today and this is a refreshing twist.

RC said...

This powerful post of yours made my mind race back to the sanitation workers strike in Memphis in 1968, the one that brought Dr. King to Memphis. These men wore a simple poster which simple said, "I AM A MAN." Even as a kid I could understand what they were calling for. It took the death of Dr. King to make the city finally come around. I am so ashamed, but I remember as a little kid running behind garbage trucks with my friends and making fun of them. It took me a long time to overcome some of my tainted thinking. My parents didn't raise me that way, but my environment was a stronger teacher at times. In that entire strike, which lasted for weeks, I heard not one word from my church about the strike except from all the people complaining about their garbage not being picked up, and how lazy (insert the word) were. They also were convinced that King was a communist. Houston ought to be ashamed.

RC said...

This powerful post of yours made my mind race back to the sanitation workers strike in Memphis in 1968, the one that brought Dr. King to Memphis. These men wore a simple poster which simple said, "I AM A MAN." Even as a kid I could understand what they were calling for. It took the death of Dr. King to make the city finally come around. I am so ashamed, but I remember as a little kid running behind garbage trucks with my friends and making fun of them. It took me a long time to overcome some of my tainted thinking. My parents didn't raise me that way, but my environment was a stronger teacher at times. In that entire strike, which lasted for weeks, I heard not one word from my church about the strike except from all the people complaining about their garbage not being picked up, and how lazy (insert the word) were. They also were convinced that King was a communist. Houston ought to be ashamed.

Daniel Gray said...

In response to the whole minimumm wage thing, I think people should earn a wage that is equal to their skills and education. (NOT some "arbitrary" amount of money)

I mean, someone who who works 40+ hours a week flipping burgers or doing manual labor does not deserve to be able to feed a family or put a roof over their heads. What is wrong with our view of humanity that we try and provide that dignity for everyone?

Seriously, I've come across that point several times lately, and it really ticks me off!

Anonymous said...

This may sound simplistic, but if they want a higher wage maybe they should find a diferent job. If the janitors had a better offer shouldn't they take it? Then why should the janitorial company be frowned upon when they are giving these workers their best offer? What does faith say about strikes? How about "whatever you find to do, do it with all of your heart to please God."

Justin said...

Why not give them each 100,000 dollars a year Daniel? Why shouldnt the government just enforce a minimum wage of 8 grand a month, no matter what people do, they get that wage. Better yet, why don't we just tax everyone a hundred percent and dole out an equal amount of money to everyone. Wait, I'm pretty sure that the Russians, North Koreans, and Cubans have given us plenty of proof that that doesn't work.

We've got a problem here. The problem is we're working with a very loose use of the word fair. To one person, its fair to be paid the wage that the market sets. To another, its only fair if they can live on that wage. But then we set arbitrary "living wages". Truth is, one can live on minimum wage. They won't have comforts. They won't have health insurance. They will do without. But they can live.

We have plenty. We have way more than we need for basic survival. The best health care in the world isn't needed for survival. People in the 19th century can attest to that, or in centuries before. Or, people in Africa and Central america. They live on way less than what our minimum wage is.

I just don't see a clear cut answer on all of this. We have to help the poor... but we also have to work within economic realities that we face... namely that the most efficient distribution of goods happens with capitalism. Socialism, communism, etc on large scales, waste vast amounts of goods. Far more than are wasted under capitalism. We have to work within capitalism and one thing about capitalism is that it sets wages based on the amount of workers needing jobs and how many jobs are availible. When you try and change that, people that are trying to keep a company profitable will get around losing money however they can. You will end up hurting those you attempt to help. And you know it. You can quote the Florida minimum wage hike all you want, but the benefits were not from the wage hike, they were from a growing economy that would have done that anyway. When the economy improves, wages improve. In nashville, its nearly impossible to find a minimum wage job because employers have to raise wages to get good workers because there is so much opportunity.

Its just sad that you have to be condescending towards people that disagree with you. There are probably some bigots out there that hate poor people, but many more just have basic understandings of economics, which, it seems you don't have.

Daniel Gray said...

Justin - I'm sorry if you felt I was condescending. I wasn't trying to be. And when I've had discussions with my friends, I've approached that issue carefully with them.

I am a social worker, not an economist. And I just get tired of hearing that people use the argument of educational attainment and skills. I agree that salary should be differentiated - I'm not saying everyone should earn the same wage. But I'm saying at this point, many people in poverty can't sustain themselves. I would agree that a single-person household could probably get by on minimum wage, but the majority of people in poverty are single income households with children. At a yearly salary of $11,000, a single-parent with two children falls far below the federal poverty line of $16,600. Also, in my sarcasm, I made no mention of education, healthcare, or any of that. Just the basic human needs -- food, shelter.

I was merely trying to point out a frustration that I have experienced in talking with people. I apologize that you were offended.

I do approach this argument more from the human dignity side of social work, but if you've got some economic data or information, I would be interested in seeing it.

One piece I have found (thanks to Larry) is on Florida's minimum wage. Seems to have some interesting information:


Daniel Gray said...

BTW, Justin -- if you felt I was condescending to you, lex talionis is really not the way to go... I really had to bite my tongue and not lash out at your remarks.

"which, it seems you don't have."

I was not singling anybody out when I made my remarks, but I'm sorry you took offense at them.

Justin said...

My bad on the low blow. I jumped the gun a little and I apologize. I have a tendency to do that online (don't we all).

Raising minimum wage hurts the poor. In small doses, it may not drastically effect anything, but its easy to see on a large scale.

If you raise the minimum wage drastically, lets say to 10 dollars an hour from 5.15, companies have decisions to make. The first is to make sure that profit levels stay at the same place. Their labor costs have now drastically increased, so they will fire or cut hours of those who are least qualified... typically the poor and undereducated. Also, with increased wages, middle class teenagers that wouldn't take jobs for 5.15 will now enter the market in droves. And it isn't right, but lets think about what a manager is going to do... hire the poor black lady with three kids and a GED or hire the white kid who's about to graduated from high school. I'm sure I don't have to tell you what would happen.

Also, biggest problem. Small business. The under the radar fledgling businesses (mostly owned by poor or lower middle class people trying to better themselves) who would afford to pay people 5.15 an hour (or even anything under ten) now cannot afford to hire workers and will go out of business. Countless possible jobs gone, and a persons life savings down the drain.

Larry James said...

Justin, thanks for your posts here. Do a little digging into states that have raised the minimum wage--not $5 at a whack--but up toward $8. You will see that your argumente wilts in face of the hard data. No one mentions greed in this discussion. Raising the minimum to keep pace with inflation and a bit more, at least, does not adversely affect the overall economy of a state and in many cases employment opportunities increase after the minimum level is lifted.

Justin said...

Larry and Daniel,

The problem with the Florida study is that Florida's economy had all ready raised minimum wage without the government helping out. There was a low percentage of people all ready making minimum wage, and the economy was booming. And like I said, small businesses often don't show up in those studies.

Here's a link to Cato that explains my position more throroughly.


If raising the minimum wage is not going to cause said effects, someone has to explain why it won't. It goes against the law of supply and demand, so someone needs ot explain it.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Years ago, we had a comparable question before us.

Wouldn't it be okay, in the great tradition of democracy, for each state to decide whether it wants to be "slave" or "free"? Some folks stood up and said, "No, because we know that the 'slave' option is morally reprehensible. It's wrong." I'm drawing the analogy because, according to what I sometimes hear, "market economics" runs parallel to "states rights."

Strange, isn't it, now that the DJIA has broken 12,000, the "magic of the market" hasn't brought better pay to everyone who has, at the human level, helped to create such wealth. Why not? Cause the folks on top don't want it to, and aren't required to make any changes.

There are times when it is wrong if someone DOESN'T step in to say, "No more. Such inequity is intolerable." When someone does that, is it some kind of slippery slope to Communism? The very suggestion should be treated like a bad joke.

Brice said...

Frankly, I slept through most of HS economics, but a couple points here just don't sit right with me.

"...one thing about capitalism is that it sets wages based on the amount of workers needing jobs and how many jobs are availible."

In theory, I'd agree that this is how it should work, and in a lot of cases, I would imagine it does.

"When the economy improves, wages improve."

Again, it makes sense on the surface, but I have a feeling that there are plenty of companies who are not going to raise wages until a government forces them to do so, which hasn't happened on a Federal level in 9 years.

As Larry mentioned, when does greed enter the discussion? I'm not sure we can have an honest discussion of the merits of capitalism and the market looking out for the lowest wage earners without taking this into account.

Daniel Gray said...

As far as overall economic effects, one piece of data I would be interested in finding is how much of a businesses' expenses are based on labor. I poked around on BLS.gov and didn't find anything in the limited time I had, but I'm sure there's data.

I know it's different for every sector (manufacturing, farming, service, retail, etc), but I wonder what the percentage of a company's labor costs are to overall finances. Since labor tends to be only a small part of expenses (property, equipment, product, etc) I could see cost increases in labor not having as large of an effect as we portray it to have.

Haven't found any specifics on that, but just a thought from the economic perspective.

Daniel Gray said...

In relation to what Brice said, I think companies will increase wages, but only when they have to do so to keep their best and brightest working for them and not their competitor. However, for bottom-of-the-ladder earners, there is no incentive to raise their wages because of the bountiful number of these low wage earners. Capitalism works to an extent, but I think it breaks down at the bottom levels -- hence why unions seem to be important for many blue-collar professions. Eventually, everyone at the bottom has to take collective action to ensure their fair share of the pie.

Justin said...

There are other factors that determine wages, but they all have something to do with supply and demand.

If you have a set number of workers, wages will always rise are profits increase because of competition to get skilled labor. Because we are in a global economy, things are a little different. Outsourcing jobs has become a profitable thing to do (for companies and for the impoverished people who now have jobs) You can look to places like nashville, or the florida gulf coast to see that wages increase on their own without government intervention. When you have more work than workers, wages increase across the board because employers are trying to get people to fill spots. When you have a booming economy, there are fewer workers because of low unemployment. In Nashville, fast food resturaunts start around 6.50 an hour... shoot, Kroger is hiring people with no experience for 8.15 an hour here... with benefits!

Illegal immigration keeps average wages down because these people are willing to work for less (and their legal status affords them fewer options for work). The only places where minimum wage is prevalent are in places where there are more workers than jobs. Some people are unemployed while others work for 5.15 an hour. If someone wants a raise, a company can find someone else who is willing to do the work. Raising the minimum wage won't help these people's situation. Raising minimum wage just makes it harder for low skilled employees to get work and it can put small businesses that are teetering on the edge out of buisness.


How are things not better for the poor? People are no longer working for pennies a day in this country, nearly everyone has plumbing in their homes, has televisions, have at least one car, things are better. And the middle class is changing because wages have increased and those that were "middle class" are now considered to be rich. Poor people are moving into the middle class as well, but there are some poor who can't beat the cycle of poverty. But its not the corporations fault. Its not that they aren't paying enough to workers. You can spend all your money no matter how much you make. But people who grow up in poverty don't learn those life skills, and the consequences at low income levels are far greater than those at upper income levels. I know a family who is making a combinded 60 grand a year who has trouble paying their bills and who don't have health care for their children. Its not from lack of funds. Its bad money management. They scrape by on what they can, and the amount of money they are making saves them a little, but the problem there isn't lack of money. If this person's wage were 100,000 a year, they would likely have the same problems.

And this is one of the many problems of poverty. People learn bad skills, they are told they can't do anything, they don't get education or a good education isn't offered, they live in neighborhoods destroyed by gangs, drugs and violence. The problem rarely is as simple as not enough money. The problem is being trapped in a mindset of poverty. Unless that changes, no matter how much you raise minimum wage, people will still be living in slums in the inner city.

Anonymous said...

Justin - I have read your comments now for over 2 weeks. I don't agree with everything people say on this blog, including you, Larry and many others ( and I am sure people don't agree with me all the time - if ever). I have found myself agreeing with some of the points you raise. However, here is my point: Your delivery of these points is with a "chip on your shoulder" and has an overriding angry tone to them, which turns people off and,more importantly, "tunes them out" to the points you are rasing. You will be so much more effective if you will simply "debate" the topics without all of the clutter that gets in the way of some of your very good points. I enjoy your thought provoking points, but I always end up with a sour taste in my mouth. Keep giving me the thought provoking points, but leave the sour taste out. I want to keep hearing your point of view.

David D.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Justin, when it comes to this discussion, I'm definitely like the non-swimmer who's jumped into the deep end of the pool. I can't speaking articulately about these questions. I just know what I see. And what I see is a tremendous amount of wealth in the United States that doesn't seem to be distributed very fairly. All exceptions and anecdotes aside, I simply don't buy the idea (yep, pun intended) that there are no big systemic causes behind grinding poverty in this incredibly wealthy country. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that not seeing that involves a sort of willful blindness.

Larry James said...

Frank, you may be in the deep end of the pool, but you're swimming just fine! Thanks for the post.

Justin, we've gone round and round before and likely we will continue. That is fine.

However, your "personal responsibility" analysis makes my point here. Let's assume for the sake of this discussion that every poor person in the inner city here in Dallas is poor and trapped in poverty because of faulty training and lost opportunity that results in poor personal choices, ignorance, whatever you choose to call it (BTW--things are much, much more complex than this, but as I said, "for the sake of this argument"). The sheer scale of the problem facing us demands that there be a public policy response. No one is arguing that individuals don't have to assume responsibility. What we are saying is that policy needs to enable progress. Remember the GI Bill after WWII? Created a middle class in the U. S. Remember the short-lived war on poverty of the early to mid-1960s, contraray to conservative mythology, that effort, coupled with the Civil Rights movement, helped dramatically expand the black middle class in this nation, and it cut into elderly poverty in an amazing manner!

My point: Public policy moves ENTIRE GROUPS of people forward or backward, very oftern regardless of personal responsibility.

In a day or two I will post a note about the "unforgiving nature" of poverty when it comes to bad choices--something we all make.

You need to move around in the ghetto for a spell and just listen to people.

Justin said...

I live in the ghetto in Murfreesboro Larry. Granted, its much safer than some of the neighborhoods I frequented in Memphis, but its way poorer and more dangerous than anywhere I've ever rested my head before, and I chose it on purpose. I haven't, however, done a good job of mingling with people in my neighborhood (besides those that live below me)

I was trying to make the point in my last comment that its not just personal decisions, but its a corporate mindset (which includes public policy) I just believe that the policy needs to be sound in that it doesn't harm one group to help another and that it doesn't look like its helping a group when it actually harms them.

Justin said...

and when I say people that live below me, I mean literally. in the apartments below mine.

Anonymous said...

There is a faulty assumption in our country that capitalism creates fair markets. Someone above said "the most efficient distribution of goods happens with capitalism."

This is horribly false. Capitalism merely segments the market's resources so that those with wealth can make even more wealth.

The janitors do not "choose" to keep their job rather than take higher paying jobs. They simply accept the only jobs that capitalism has to offer them.

Justin said...


how then do you explain the massive creation of wealth in our country and others that are capitalist nations? We started out as a nation of poor agrarians, but industry showed up, people start out as workers in the factories and end up owning their own businesses.

Are you an economist? What type of system would you say distributes wealth more efficiently than capitalism?

Anonymous said...

Justin - Capitalism may have created massive amounts of wealth. The other anonymous isn't denying that... He's just saying it doesn't distribute it fairly.

Turn the same question on yourself... Are you an economist?

You're asking questions to challenge people's credibility, but I don't see you building your own credibility... possibly hoping that we ignore yours?

What's your education background in economics? What experience do you have in forecasting economic policy?

Just saying that you shouldn't pull an ad hominem without establishing your own credibility...