Union rally notes progress on wages, areas of concern
A group of workers and union representatives commemorated the upcoming Labor Day holiday by praising local efforts to boost wages and worker rights and spotlighting areas that could still use improvement.
“I hope that the city of Houston will continue to raise standards and only do business with contractors who will be responsible,” Rita Sanchez, a housekeeper with Houston First who works in Jones Hall, said during a Tuesday press conference outside City Hall. “... All workers who work for the city of Houston and keep this city clean should have the opportunity to have a better job with a contract and security.”
Sanchez recalled long hours cleaning restrooms at the George R. Brown Convention Center as Hurricane Harvey refugees sought shelter from the storm. She said janitors worked hard to keep conditions sanitary and wanted recognition for that work.
Earlier this year, they ratified a new contract with a raise increase. The minimum wage for Houston First housekeepers, floor technicians and other staff will gradually increase to $12 an hour by 2021, up from $9.35. Houston First, which operates and manages city-owned facilities, employs these workers through a contract with Midwest Maintenance.
Holding contractors accountable for treating employees with respect was a major theme from the press conference.
“It’s not just about raising the wages,” said Elsa Caballero, president of Service Employees International Union Texas. “That’s the first step, but we also need to make sure that the people who hire Houstonians are responsible contractors that are going to do the right thing by the workers.”
Alesia Horton, a security officer at City Hall, recalled spending days at her post during Harvey without a change of clothes, and with only potato chips and snacks for food. They didn’t know when they’d be rescued.
“And since nobody came to check on us, we felt forgotten about and disrespected,” she said.
Over the last year, she said that Mayor Sylvester Turner and members of City Council have listened to security officers and included many of their concerns in its new request for proposal for city contractors that provide janitorial and security services.
Similarly, the city updated its tax-abatement ordinance in May to require that companies provide community benefits and worker protections, including safety training for construction workers, in order to qualify for tax breaks.
A Unite Here union official spoke about efforts to get United Airlines’ catering workers a minimum wage of $12 an hour. Last week, the National Mediation Board authorized an election for the airline’s 2,700 catering workers, including more than 800 in Houston, to decide if they wanted to join Unite Here.
The union vote had been stalled because United Airlines alleged the authorization cards calling for an election to unionize were invalid due to fraud, threats or coercion. United also alleged that employees might not have understood the authorization cards they signed.
The National Mediation Board, however, found the authorization cards were not tainted.
In a statement, United Airlines said it’s committed to treating all employees fairly, whether or not they’re represented by a union.
“We respect our employees’ rights to decide whether they want to be represented by a union and will follow the voting process, timeline and laws as outlined by The National Mediation Board and Railway Labor Act,” the airline said.
Ultimately, Caballero wanted to remind people of what Labor Day is really celebrating.
“We are celebrating the work that has been done up to now to make sure that workers are protected, to make sure workers have a livable wage that allows them to live with dignity and respect with their families,” she said. “We are very clear that work does not stop with that. We have a lot of work to do especially in a place like Texas who has so many people still working at the current minimum wage.”