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Houston city workers demand "We want respect! Put it in the check!"

By Paul Hill

HOUSTON - About 500 supporters of the Houston Organization of Public Employees (HOPE) union employees marched from Tranquility Park in downtown Houston to City Hall on 11/1/07 to demand fair wages for city workers. HOPE is a union which represents collaboration between the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union. Currently, Houston city workers are paid 21% less than their counterparts in other Texas cities such as Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. The crowd was loud and enthusiastic and were supported by notable labor and community leaders such as U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Rev. William Lawson, Deacon Sam Dunning, Houston City Councilmembers Sue Lovell and Peter Brown, candidate for City Council John Marron, candidate for U.S. Senator from Texas Rick Noriega, Texas AFL-CIO President Becky Moeller, Harris County AFL-CIO President Dale Wortham, Harris County Secretary/Treasurer Richard Shaw, Rev. John Bowie, and Charles Steele of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Contract negotiations are ongoing between the city and its civilian workers' union. Workers are demanding Houston Mayor Bill White pay the 1,000 city employees working for less than $10-an-hour "a living wage." The city has so far only offered guaranteed 2% raises each year for four years. White wants to set aside some money and let supervisors hand out larger raises to the best employees.

Robert Joseph, a member of HOPE told me that "We're here because we're trying to ratify a contract with the city of Houston. We're trying to get a contract that's sufficient for the City of Houston and the employees…We're seeking fair wages and the biggest issue is the health care benefits. Affordable health care is a problem for quite a few city employees." When asked if city employees have health care, Mr. Joseph replied, "We have health care benefits, but our wages are so low we can't afford to cover ourselves and our children. We're trying to come to an agreement with the city so it will be economical for the employees and the city of Houston."

A march through downtown Houston was held and marchers were enthusiastic when they exclaimed, "We want respect! Put it in the check!"

One of the speakers declared, "Houston we have a problem - a problem of low wages. Because we march we can create change. People who march make history. People who march make change." There were numerous calls for "dignity and respect" for workers. Dale Wortham, President of Harris County AFL-CIO told the crowd, "HOPE springs united!" Richard Shaw, Secretary of Harris County AFL-CIO called for "Solidarity forever!"

Ruby Jones, a worker from Parks and Recreation, told HOPE supporters that she has worked for six years and has three children of her own. She stated she loves children and loves working with them. However, she makes only $7.80 an hour. She knows it is important to tell children to stay in school, but it's hard when her pay is so low. She said, "We can't teach our kids the value of working hard if working hard doesn't pay a living wage."

A representative from U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee's office said, "It is embarrassing to strip the workers of their dignity." He read a statement from the congress member which included, "I stand in solidarity with you. Our great leaders and champions of the country are workers. I am disappointed to have Houston pay 21% less than their counterparts in Texas and the rest of the country. Houston is one of the best cities for business."

Charles Steele of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference gave the keynote address and gave a rousing call to action even though his microphone was without power for a few minutes. He told it like it is, "Call it like it is, its racism. (A majority of the HOPE members attending the rally were African American) It's a racist institution. (Referring to the City of Houston) People of color are considered second class citizens. It's 2007 and the mayor is acting like its '37. Nobody is going to give you anything. You have to fight for everything you get in this society. They don't care about you. (Referring to city management) Martin Luther King died in Memphis fighting for the sanitation workers and here we are 40 years later fighting for the same thing. Houston, the whole world is looking at you!"

The HOPE website is titled "Houstonwehaveaproblem.org"


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