By James Thompson
HOUSTON – Following in the tradition of the Harris County AFL-CIO, the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center (HIWJ) assembled a group of 30 labor activists to ride a Justice Bus in Houston today (11/19/09). The group was ethnically diverse, included men and women representing a number of organizations to include HIWJ, SEIU, Justice for Janitors, United Steelworkers, United Auto Workers, Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Houston Mennonite Church, CRECEN, and AFL-CIO of Harris County.
The action was one of 30 taking place around the country and was part of “a national day of action to stop wage theft.” Wage theft is “a national crime wave that takes billions of dollars out of the pockets of millions of workers every year” according to HIWJ.
On the first stop, the justice bus visited the Sugar Branch Condominiums in Southwest Houston. HIWJ has been trying since September to recover $2500 in unpaid wages owed three landscaping workers. They have not been paid since April. The workers were pressured to return to work after they stopped working when they were not paid. They returned to work, but still were not paid and were given repeated promises that they would be paid “tomorrow.” Today a delegation met with the President of the Homeowners’ Association and requested that the workers be paid. She denied responsibility and was very upset and shut the door on the delegation. She told the delegation to contact the Association’s attorneys.
It seemed ironic that the people in management at these condominiums would rather pay an attorney than the workers that had provided a needed service. Indeed, it would probably be cheaper to pay the workers than the attorneys.
Some people said that when workers are not paid, there is negative cascading effect on the worker, their family and the community. Unpaid workers go hungry, their self esteem is devastated and their families are hungry and desperate. When they are unpaid, they are left with limited choices to help their families. Some resort to crime and their family members may also engage in criminal activity so they do not starve and they have the basic necessities of life. When businesses do not compensate their employees, they are contributing to the deterioration of the community.
All of the stops had a spirited rally outside the business. Participants had plastic water bottles with some popcorn kernels inside. When the bottles were shaken they made a lot of noise. Chants accompanied the percussive sounds of the bottles and included “No more wage theft…pay the workers…the workers united will never be defeated (in English and Spanish).” Organizers referred to activists as “compañeros,” i.e. comrades.
The second stop was at the Honduras Restaurant in Spring Branch in Northwest Houston. Here a female employee was paid $4.55 an hour which was two dollars under the minimum wage at the time. Previous efforts by HIWJ to talk with the owner met with physical intimidation, yelling and threats to call the police and INS. Today HIWJ returned with 30 people, but the owner was not available. However, the owner of the strip center came out and when told the situation said he could not tolerate the bad publicity that this action generated. He implied that the restaurant owner’s behavior would not be tolerated either.
The third scheduled stop was cancelled because the owner, a minister himself, paid the workers on the previous evening in an effort to stop bad publicity and damage to his reputation among his peers in the faith community.
Over lunch, a male worker, Johnny, cried as he told his story to the group of activists. His boss at Supernova Furniture store allegedly owes him $16,000 in back pay. He talked about how he felt isolated and was glad to have the support of other people. As a result of the action, he said he did not feel he was the only one. Olga, a janitor, also cried as she told how her employer, Pritchard Southwest, made her work an extra hour without pay and when she refused to do this, they threatened to fire her. She is owed $697.50 in unpaid labor.
The fourth stop was at the Supernova Furniture store in South Houston. Johnny and a delegation of supporters met with the owners and they agreed to set a meeting with him and HIWJ to try to negotiate an acceptable agreement.
The fifth stop was at Prichard Southwest in the Heritage Plaza in downtown Houston. There the justice bus was met by about 300 janitors, community leaders and their supporters. Pritchard is the only company in Houston that refuses to negotiate a contract with SEIU Local 1 Justice for Janitors. The group loudly demanded that the company sit down with SEIU and bargain in good faith.
Some participants made cell phone calls to companies across the country that contract with Pritchard asking them to tell Prichard to negotiate with their workers.
A report on wage theft by the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center concludes that worker abuse is widespread in the Greater Houston Metropolitan Area and nationally. 1,019 workers have reported to the Workers Center in Houston and appealed for help in resolving their grievances. The report also notes that wage theft is encouraged by the lack of government enforcement by agencies whose mandate is to protect and defend workers. The report calls for more enforcement of the laws against wage theft by government agencies and the formation of special task forces to address these wrongs.