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December 01, 2005

5000 Janitors Organize in Delay's Back Yard

Nothing like this has been seen in twenty-five years in Houston: 5000 Houston janitors have organized a union at the four largest cleaning companies in the city.

Now what's the big deal about 5000 members? Tasini, with Ezra Klein chiming in, treat it as a tiny drop in the bucket. As Tasini argues:

[W]hile 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.
Which let's numbers get in the way of analysis of why the Houston win is one of the most important victories in decades.

5000 new members in New York City would be a yawn-- in fact, SEIU has organized far more than 5000 janitors in northern New Jersey in recent years, which is important but not life changing for the labor movement.

But these workers were organized in the South in the private sector, a feat that promises new tactics to support a range of organizing in the region.

The failure to organize the South is the number one, two and three reason why the labor movement peaked after the end of World War II and has been in slow then faster decline ever since. Without unions in the South, it meant that jobs could be shifted more easily out of pro-union areas even for companies that wanted to be in the United States; just look at the Japanese car plants.

And, as significantly, the lack of unions in the South left unions with no political presence in a giant region of the country, meaning that even moderate Democrats did not politically defend union interests in Congress or in state legislatures enacting "right to work" laws and other anti-union measures.

The success of the janitors union was driven by new tactics to put national pressure on the contracting companies to force them to recognize the local janitors in Houston, a tactic that if it's perfected and replicated could leverage more and more Houston's "every day."

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.

Posted by Nathan at December 1, 2005 08:29 AM