State of the Union

In San Antonio, organizers for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are gathering commitment cards from city and county employees. In Houston, union negotiators are preparing to bargain on behalf of some 5,300 janitors. And in Washington last week, Eliseo Medina was smiling.

That's because Medina, the executive vice president of SEIU, is at the helm of the nation's largest labor union, which in recent months has launched aggressive recruitment and bargaining campaigns in ten southern and southwestern states. The campaigns, which stretch from Nevada to the Florida panhandle, are part of a larger effort to revitalize the labor movement in regions that have been historically hostile to organized labor.

"We live in a country right now where workers feel like they're under siege," said Medina, who met with reporters in the Capitol last week to outline the union's long-term strategy for affecting change on labor and immigration issues. The key, according to Medina, lies in 17 states that at first glance seem like unlikely targets for a resurgence of labor.

"These are the growing states, in terms of population," he said. "They are all 'right to work' states. And all but Nevada has a union membership of two to four percent."

Most importantly, though, the states collectively represent 185 votes in Congress. Change in the South, said Medina, and it could lead to improved national policies on labor and immigration reform.

The city of Houston has been at the epicenter of this effort ever since late November, when SEIU organizers there won votes of confidence from more than half of the janitorial workers employed by the city's five largest janitorial service companies, allowing them to form an official union. This set the stage for bargaining over wages, health insurance, and work schedules which is scheduled to begin next month.

Janitorial wages start at $5.15 an hour in Houston, but they average just 15 cents more than that. Most janitors are offered only part-time positions, which lack many of the benefits that come standard with full-time jobs, including health care and vacation time. Also, the janitorial industry employs a large contingent of undocumented immigrants, who lack both the social safety net granted to U.S. citizens and, often, the confidence to seek it out.

The surprising success of SEIU's campaign in Houston thus far may be due to its all-encompassing approach. Rather than trying to change one company at a time, the union targeted janitorial companies representing 60 percent of the Houston market and proposed across-the-board labor standards they could agree to meet. The idea was to diffuse the desire of companies to opt out in order to conserve their competitive edge.

"It's always difficult when you are talking about losing money," said Medina, "but under this model no one is put at a disadvantage."

In the two years of organizing that preceded a vote by the janitors, SEIU also formed strong ties with a network of religious groups and other community organizations in Houston, including the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and The Metropolitan Organization. Unions in four other cities staged strikes in solidarity with the Houston workers, which Medina believes provided a key boost for the campaign.

SEIU says the Houston approach has achieved varying degrees of success in some 27 other cities. But its final impact in Houston has yet to be determined. Since janitorial companies often submit competitive bids to building owners for cleaning contracts, some company officials say their concessions to workers will depend on what the building owners are willing to pay.

"We won't offer anything to the unions that will make us uncompetitive," said Dwight Supolt, vice president of Human Resources for GCA Services Group, one of Houston's largest janitorial companies.

If negotiations between SEIU and the janitorial companies produce concrete gains for workers there, the Houston model could be emulated in other southern cities where wages are low. With the help of students at the University of Miami, the union is currently using a similar strategy to organize janitors in that city, and Medina said the approach could apply not only to janitorial workers, but also to those in the long-term care and hospital industries, as well as public employees in cities and counties throughout the nation.

This last proposal has ruffled some feathers in Texas and elsewhere among those loyal to another union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). This union has traditionally been the preeminent public employee union in the United States, and relations with SEIU have been rough ever since the AFL-CIO convention in June 2005, where SEIU led four other unions in leaving the AFL after accusing it of doing too little to organize workers.

As a result, recent efforts by SEIU to unionize public-sector employees in San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley and Bexar County in Texas have met with opposition from AFSCME loyalists. Still, preliminary results have been strong. In 2005, SEIU won a 4.5 percent raise and a freeze on health care costs for 1,200 San Antonio city workers. In Houston, the union is applying its momentum from the janitorial fight to the public sector, and recently filed a petition to represent 10,000 public employees there, stoking antagonism from AFSCME officials.

"It's a strong-arm move by the SEIU to take advantage of AFSCME's hard work," said Bruce Jett, the director of organizing for AFSCME in Houston and a former SEIU employee. "I hear workers all the time asking, 'Why are these unions fighting with each other instead of fighting the corporations?'"

But such protests have done little to dampen Medina's ambition. He said that by the end of 2006, he would like to have won a contract for the Houston janitors, and he hopes the city of Houston will soon hold an election to decide whether to recognize an SEIU public-employee union.

"If all goes well, we could have as many as 15,000 new members in Texas by the end of this year," he said.

For Medina, at the end of the day, such benchmarks are merely steps in the road toward a larger goal: a nationwide immigration policy that includes a sound guest worker program and a mechanism for undocumented immigrants to earn U.S. citizenship.

"To be successful, we need to have the ability to unite all workers," he said. "We have to remember that these are people who came to this country to work."

Nelson Harvey is a Prospect intern.