Occupy protests have spread far and wide across the country since September 17th of 2011, when the first Occupy Wall Street protest was held in Zuccotti Park. However, if events in Houston this week are any indication, it may be the janitors of the country that end up turning the tide of the discussion about the rift between the rich and the poor in America.
On July 18th, about 15 activists protesting janitor employment conditions in Houston, have been arrested. The struggle sparked growing protests across the country, as janitors in six other cities across the country walked off the job on Tuesday in protest of worker conditions for janitors.
Various media reports predict that additional janitors in other citites, such as Los Angeles and Denver, will join the growing tide of striking janitorial staff that say they are underpaid and mistreated. Activists from within the groundswell movement say that they feel their plight marks ground zero of the middle class struggle against wealthy executives that would horde company revenue and profits rather than sharing company success with employees. (1)
As the country struggles to recover from a recession – more workers across the country are taking a stand, making it clear to corporate leaders that the approach of cutting benefits and pay on a yearly basis, while corporate leadership rakes in bonuses and stock option payouts, is no longer going to be tolerated by the American worker.
Janitor Activists Arrested While Blocking the Street
On Wednesday, July 18th, the Service Employees International Union issued a press release reporting that 15 activists blocked a city intersection in Houston in an act of “civil disobedience” to call attention to employer misconduct in Houston. A Fox Houston news report indicated that 16 people were arrested during the protest. (5)
Companies specifically cited in the press release included national cleaning contractors such as ABM, ISS and GCA. Workers for these companies earn an average of hourly wage of $8.55. Additionally, one ABM worker, 41 year old Maria Lopez, told the Huffington Post that the company works hard to increase profits by squeezing employees as hard as possible.
“We want decent wages. They only want to give us a 10 cent raise and get rid of all of our benefits.”
Offering little or no wage increases each year, in addition to constantly cutting employee benefits, has been a long-running tactic of corporate leadership over the last decade. Meanwhile, the same corporate leadership has reaped tremendous rewards from those cuts – rewards that have gone directly into the pockets of corporate leadership.
The One Percent
The CEO of ABM since 2000 is Henrik C. Slipsager. According to Business Week, Henrik earns a salary of $833,325 a year, but also receives stock awards, options and other bonuses that bring his total compensation to $3.37 million. (2) Ironically, Henrik was on an episode of Undercover Boss, where he had the opportunity to experience life working at his own company. He failed to improve any corporate-wide worker benefits after the experience. (3)
Overall, CEO salaries in the facilities services industry average at about $624,000 a year, with stock options that reach upwards of $1.6 million or more. (4)
Janitors and other minimum-wage workers that make up the 3,200 employee Service Employees International Union are only asking for a contract that includes an increase in pay to $10 an hour, rather than the increase the company is offering that brings pay up to only $8.85 by 2016.
The companies can not make the claim that times are tough for the industry. Since March of 2009, ABM stock value nearly doubled, paying dividends to shareholders along the way. In its press release, the SEIU points out that the Houston commercial real estate market is one of the “best performing markets” in the U.S., yet janitors there earn about three times less than janitors in other cities, like Chicago.
The plight of Houston Janitors serves as a ground-floor example of what many American workers have faced over the last decade or so, as companies resorted to outsourcing jobs, and cutting worker pay and benefits. As the U.S. economy recovers, workers are now demanding that either Corporate leaders smarten up and do a better job at sharing company profits with workers, or both corporations and the government may face a full-scale, national revolt of the struggling middle and lower class workers.