Steve Greenhouse has a front-page story in The New York Times today (registration required) reporting on the success of SEIU's organizing drive among janitors in Houston. What's interesting about the victory--other than the fact that it brings in 5,000 new members in the hard-to-organize South--is the way the victory was pulled off.
Check out these two paragraphs:
The service employees, which led a breakaway of four unions from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. last summer, has used several unusual tactics in Houston, among them lining up the support of religious leaders, pension funds and the city's mayor, Bill White, a Democrat. Making the effort even more unusual has been the union's success in a state that has long been hostile to labor.
"It's the largest unionization campaign in the South in years," said Julius Getman, a labor law professor at the University of Texas. "Other unions will say, 'Yes, it can be done here.' "
In the current campaign, the service employees urged several public-employee pension funds to press building owners and janitorial companies not to mount hard-hitting anti-union campaigns to defeat the organizing drive. To step up the pressure, the union called a strike at one building in Houston and then arranged sympathy strikes by janitors at 75 office buildings in four other states.
It was also a successful use of card check (the process that avoids using the so-called election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board):
In recent days, the union has collected cards signed by about three-fifths of the workers at four of Houston's biggest janitorial companies. An agreement signed in August calls for the American Arbitration Association to inspect the cards and certify when the union has received majority support. The janitorial companies have promised to recognize the union once that happens.
Kudos to Stewart Acuff, the AFL-CIO's organizing director, for taking the high road and praising the victory by the Change To Win federation's largest union.
Now, not to rain on the parade of an important organizing drive, Greenhouse fails to put this in context, other than the usual analysis about what this means for organizing in the South: while 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.
But, the reality is having a union in the lives of these janitors in Houston will make a huge difference--once they negotiate a first contract, no easy task.
Still, a reason to celebrate.