Mercedes Herrerra is 39 years old. She grew up in Veracruz, Mexico. She came from a hardworking family. As she says, “My mom instilled in me a desire to stand up for people.” Herrerra and her husband have four children, one granddaughter and one grandson “on the way.”

Herrerra came to Houston in 1994. She first started cleaning houses in 1996. Then she moved 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.” (This is not legal.)

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Herrerra 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. (This is not legal.)

Frequently, employers would just not pay her for all the hours she worked. Herrerra 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.

For lots of the cleaning firms around town, Friday was a rush day. Workers would be told they had to clean the same number of rooms they regularly did in 4 hours in only 3, so that the managers could get off early. After 3 hours, the worker would be required to clock out and then finish the work on his or her own time. (Yes, this too is illegal.)

Perhaps worse for Herrerra than the wage theft was the treatment she received. Managers would scream at her and her colleagues. Some would tell workers they were old and worthless.

Three years ago, Herrerra 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. Herrerra 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

Things have changed a lot since the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) worked with the 5300 janitors in Houston to negotiate a union contract. Now Herrerra makes $7.25 per hour and gets a raise every year. She gets one week of vacation after one year and two weeks after five years. She gets six paid holidays. Now she is getting 5 hours of work a day and next year she will get 6. Even though she doesn’t yet get paid for sick days, she doesn’t fear losing her job because she takes a sick day. Next year, workers will get individual health coverage, and the union is building a health clinic. The workers want lots more in their contract (higher wages, family health care, pensions, paid sick days), but they know it will be difficult to win until more of Houston’s janitors are represented by the union.