Mercedes first started cleaning houses in 1996 before moving to cleaning downtown buildings and sports facilities, working primarily for staffing agencies. She and her coworkers were frequently victims of wage theft.
She was never paid for overtime. Her employers would tell her, “There is no overtime. After 40 hours you work for someone else.”
After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Mercedes was hired by a cleaning firm contracted to clean the Reliance Center. She was in charge of keeping the bathrooms clean. Her staffing agency charged her $100 per week for her shoes, gloves, masks, cleaning supplies, and shuttle rides to the Center. She wasn’t told when she was hired that such charges would be taken from her paycheck. As a result, her hourly wage fell significantly below minimum wage.
Frequently, employers would just not pay her for all the hours she worked. Mercedes would always complain and try to get all the wages she was owed, but most of her colleagues didn’t feel comfortable standing up for themselves.
Eight years ago, Mercedes took a position cleaning buildings in the Galleria for ABM, a national janitorial firm. Although ABM always paid her, before the workers organized, she only earned $5.15 an hour and she had no vacation days, no sick days, no health insurance or pension, and lots of work. She was only given 4 hours of work a day. She had to clean eighteen large restrooms in 4 hours per day.
When one of the organizers came to her door to talk about organizing a union, she knew it was right. Mercedes says, “I had so much anger built up from years of exploitation.” First she went to a rally at a building to support other janitors. Then she went to some meetings for training. Then she began talking with her coworkers about joining the union. She got people’s names and addresses and tried to motivate them to get involved.
When she got involved, the organizing had already been going on about a year. It took almost two years total to win a union contract.