Thursday, November 23, 2006

Janitors in Houston are thankful this Thanksgiving


Settling for small wage increases that may be meaningless when the Democrats raise the minimum wage to above the settlement but getting health care and longer hours was probably good negotiation.

Perry Dorell scolds those who didn't do much and those who called this strike pointless. Brains and Eggs: Corporate greedheads give in; janitors strike ends.

Perry Dorrell also points to the story of how the janitors were treated in Houston jails - like in a third world country just to demoralize the strikers. Houston made visible the class warfare being waged in this country against the poor. But only if you saw any of the stories on the main stream media not filtered through the conservative lens of "those strikers deserved anything that happened to them for inconveniencing my driving."

In another effort to break the strike, bond was set for the peaceful protesters charged with misdemeanors at $888,888 each! Standard bail for street protests is $500. Recent murder suspects in Harris County man had bail set at $30,000. After the settlement, the bonds were reduced by another judge to $1,000.

Blatant mistreatment and harassment in jail was "like a third world country." Guards ignored a severe diabetic woman who had collapsed, continuing with a roll call. Guards kicked the cast of a woman with a fractured arm. First night the temperature was set too hot and one person had seizures. The next night they took away blankets and set the temperature to almost freezing. Guards called the female protesters "whores" and said "This is what you get for protesting." One of them said, ‘Who gives a shit about janitors making 5 dollars an hour? Lots of people make that much."

Someone should talk to the policeman's union about this. Now that they have some rights and better pay they want to kick others who are down?


1 comment:

rjnagle said...

Gary,

thanks for your great coverage of the janitor strike.

I tend to be skeptical of "press reports" from strikers (they exaggerate police brutality to manipulate opinion), but the details here are hair-raising. The Chronicle did a disservice by giving the event such scanty coverage.

(btw, here's a washington post link you missed).


Ever since Reagan refused to hire air traffic controllers, labor unions have really floundered. It has reached the point where labor unions just seem a passe way to protest work conditions. (now put up a website or put up a satirical youtube video: that's more credible to the 21st century american).


the unwritten story is that these janitorial firms employ lots of undocumented workers; they don't expect US citizens to tolerate these wage levels. and undocumented workers can't strike; The sandoval person is a good spokesman because she sounds like a legal resident. But I suspect she is a minority among her coworkers. (And I suspect the reason why they trucked in out-of-towners to protest is that they were at least documented workers).

If an immigration bill passed making more stringent employment verification, I suspect wages will increase dramatically for these types of jobs. That's because these agencies won't be able to rely on undocumented workers anymore. In fact an increase in minimum wage would have mitigated the reasons for the strike.

As for health coverage, I think that employer-funded health care is an outdated concept. (and the proliferation of health savings accounts and high deductible health insurance essentially means that the employer is no longer providing comprehensive health coverage anymore). Low-wage industries are just not going to offer no-restrictions health care to employers. In the last two years the whole employee benefits industry has changed from "defined benefit" to "defined contribution." Open-ended benefits (especially in an age of spiraling health care costs) are going to become out of reach for workers, not just low-wage ones.

I read a book about a year ago about health care reform. An advocate basically suggested abolishing the employer-provided health care option because they offered bad value for the costs--deriving their main benefit from the tax deduction. Because companies had to let every eligible employee (and family) sign up for the plan, their health care provider could not properly underwrite high-risk policies. Consequently, they passed on these costs to employees. Family rates tend to be unusually high because they have to take into account those high-risk family members.

He advocated that everyone buy individual policies and not entangle employers in their health care decisions (these employers had little sense of what health care coverage you actually needed). Coincidentally, this sounds a lot like Phil Gramm's proposed fix for the health care crisis in the 90s.

I went to individual coverage when I quit my job, and although I'm losing tax benefits from employer-provided coverage, I enjoy having complete control over my insurance purchase decisions. I also enjoy the freedom of not being dependent on my employer.

The analyst also advocated that the tax deduction for employer-provided coverage be changed to allow deduction for any kind of health care spending/coverage.

My sister works in the employer-benefits field, and she strongly disagrees with this assessment. But then again, every year she meets with clients and socks a new rate increase to them. And employers mostly end up going for it because they know their employees need the tax benefit from employer-provided health care.

To summarize: the janitor issue is essentially an undocumented worker issue. Although the janitors mention health care rather prominently in their list of demands, employer-provided benefits at low wage jobs are across the board are terrible/expensive/have extremely high deductibles. They are better off bargaining for higher salaries than benefits, because benefits are likely to curtailed even more over time.