A Victory for Janitors in Houston, With Thanks to a Humble Martyr

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


The Service Employees International Union yesterday won a tentative agreement for higher pay and health insurance for its new members in Houston, who have been locked in an acrimonious, monthlong strike at the city’s largest cleaning companies. It’s a major victory for the SEIU, which set out last year to organize part-time, often-undocumented Hispanic workers in a region of the country that hasn’t typically embraced organized labor. Houston is likely to become a model for the union’s efforts in other Southern cities: Beyond using the same quiet educational efforts, noisy protests and hardball negotiating, organizers are sure to be on the lookout for another Ercilia Sandoval.

Rosy-cheeked, clad in a wig and leopard print headband, and suffering from laryngitis that had reduced her voice to a whisper, Sandoval met with me in her small apartment last month, sitting down at a table beneath a print of the Last Supper. She told a story of leaving three of her children in San Miguel, El Salvador ten years ago to pursue an illusory American Dream. “I promised them that, at most, I would be gone a year,” she whispered, “and then I would bring them here.” To this day she hasn’t seen them. Instead, she has struggled to make ends meet laboring for a tortilla factory, then an Episcopal church, and finally a major janitorial contractor working in downtown skyscrapers—one of five companies targeted by the SEIU. Preoccupied with sending money to her family, she might have never involved herself in the union’s struggle if she hadn’t decided she’d nothing to lose.

Last September Sandoval began feeling worn out on the job. She scrubbed bathroom fixtures through headaches and fevers, emptied trash cans with sore arms and a tight back. Lacking health insurance, she couldn’t afford to see a doctor. Nearly a year passed before she forked over $200 for a consultation. A mammogram confirmed her worst fears: she suffered from an advanced stage of breast cancer. Yet hospitals in Houston wouldn’t treat her because she was uninsured. She waited two months to be approved for state disability coverage. In June, Doctors finally began chemotherapy treatments but say she probably has only a few months to live.

Just as her cancer was spreading, she met an SEIU organizer at her Episcopal church who was looking for janitors. The organizer found in Sandoval someone looking to harness her outrage and despair. “Some of the workers were afraid,” Sandoval says, “but often I said, ‘Afraid of what? We are not going to lose a good job. We are not going to lose a good salary– we don’t have benefits, we don’t have anything.” As Sandoval’s health deteriorated, her resolve strengthened. In September, she accepted a spot alongside the SEIU top brass at the negotiating table. Her job: to convince the cleaning companies to provide her and 5,300 fellow janitors with health insurance in the union’s first contract.

On the day of the negotiations, Sandoval was the last person to talk. She feared she’d be just another person asking for something. She stepped into the bathroom to steel her nerves. Returning to the conference room, she asked the executives and lawyers if they were looking at her. “And I looked them all in their eyes,” she said. “I assured myself that they were all looking at me. And I took off my wig.”

Sandoval saw a group of men who were shocked. “Some were crying. Others sat with their mouths open. Other ones just couldn’t even blink their eyes.

“And that,” she said, “is what I wanted.”

Sandoval’s display was only the beginning of a struggle this fall that led to the strike, solidarity protests around the country, and ads featuring her bald visage. But it was clearly a defining moment for the movement and Sandoval’s own sense of transcendence. “I’m not just fighting for me,” she told me. “I’m fighting for everyone. Because why not rise up? Why not try?”

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.