“We’re paid so little that we have to choose between buying gas and turning on our air conditioning.”

Those are the words of Alice McAfee, one of thousands of Houston janitors making $8.35 an hour — an average of $8,684 a year and well below the poverty line. These workers make this despite cleaning up after some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, like JP Morgan, Barclays, Shell, and Chevron, the four of which made a combined $86 billion in profits last year.

Alice and her co-workers are asking for a raise of just $1.65 an hour, to $10 an hour, phased in over four years, so that they can earn a decent living. Sounds reasonable? Their employers don’t think so. They’ve counter-offered with a raise of just ten cents per hour a year.

This struggle is a microcosm of a broader battle playing out across America today. Corporations are making sky-high profits while employees at the bottom work themselves to exhaustion and have to fight for every penny — and even then still must survive on poverty wages. That’s why we’re partnering with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to help these janitors in their struggle for dignity and better pay.

The Houston janitors have grueling work schedules. According to Alice, “they used to give me five hours to do three floors. Now I have four hours for five floors… I’m doing eight to twelve hours work in four hours, and it’s just impossible.” Like most of the janitors, Alice’s hours don’t amount to full-time work, so she’s forced to work multiple jobs to keep her head above water, and she’s not even allowed to speak to employees in the buildings she cleans.

Despite chronic overwork and underpay, these workers aren’t asking for a revolution. All they want is a small raise, a token of respect, and they’re willing to put themselves on the line for it — hundreds of them are going on strike to fight for a decent wage.

Alice speaks passionately about what it feels like to be fighting for dignity at the bottom of the ladder: “I remember when my family and neighbors and I were ignored by salespeople in stores and had to give up our seats on the bus… Now it’s low wage workers who are treated like second-class citizens. It feels like we’re fighting the same fight for respect and basic equality that our parents fought all over again.”

“This is about putting an end to discrimination once and for all — racism, discrimination against immigrants, and discrimination against the working poor. This is about restoring dignity to all work. Until we do that, we’re only the land of opportunity for some — not for all.”

The Houston janitors are doing everything they can to fight for more equitable pay, but their strategy relies on getting word out to as many people as possible about their unjust conditions, so these giant public companies feel some public heat. That’s where members of SumOfUs.org come in. Together, we can hit these companies where it hurts — their bottom line — and push them to spend some of their enormous wealth on decent wages for employees all the way down the line, rather than hoarding it at the top.

Thank you for all that you do,

Claiborne and the rest of us



Further Reading:

In These Times: Houston Janitors Strike Oil and Banking Buildings, 16 July 2012

The Nation: This Week in Poverty: Houston Janitors’ Strike Goes Citywide, 13 July 2012