SEIU Marches in Houston

Union solidarity in Houston’s Justice for Janitors struggle

By James Thompson and Bernadette Steward

HOUSTON – About 1500 Houston janitors, labor activists and supporters gathered for the Houston Janitors Contract Convention on 10/10/09 at the Post Oak Hilton Hotel near the Galleria shopping center. The meeting was exuberant with a number of rousing speeches in Spanish and English. Participants were ethnically and gender diverse. Following the meeting was a spirited march to the Williams Tower office building, about two miles away.

There was a great show of union solidarity and there were members of many unions present to include: American Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, United Auto Workers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Houston Organization of Public Employes as well as the Harris County AFL-CIO. SEIU union activists from Chicago were also present and provided a great deal of support.

Richard Shaw, Secretary-Treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO addressed the crowd and stated, “I want to congratulate you, you got a union, you got a contract, got some healthcare.” He declared, “You’re here today because you care about each other and you want a new contract.” He reminded people, “AFL-CIO was there on your first march…we were on the street with you when you were fighting for your first contract…the unions of AFL-CIO have been behind you all the way.”

Many other organizations were there to provide support and express solidarity to include CRECEN, America Para Todos, and LULAC. In all there were 70 organizations supporting the effort.

Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston, gave a rousing speech in which she urged people to “continue the fight to organize.” She expressed her opposition to the legislation seeking to tax the health system. She urged people to support President Obama’s efforts to “fight for health care for all Americans. That is, everyone who lives and works in this country.”

A slide show outlined the “top priorities based on a survey” as including: “Win fair wage increase, protect and improve our health care, strengthen contract language to guarantee maximum hours.” 

The janitors have been subjected to oppression in their struggles in New Orleans and Houston. Police have used horses to intimidate marchers in Houston and New Orleans. Some janitors have been injured in these unjustified attacks.

Other dignitaries present included Houston city councilwoman, Jolanda Jones, and mayoral candidate Annise Parker. There was a video message of support from Rep. Al Green, D-Houston.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) led a month long strike in Houston three years ago over the right to form a union and to engage in collective bargaining. Labor agreements were reached with some of the office buildings housing some of the richest corporations in the world. SEIU represents 3,200 janitors in Houston. The contracts are due to expire on Nov. 20 and the union is seeking to reopen negotiations.

Prior to the contract reached three years ago, Houston janitors made about $20 per day and had no benefits for health care or retirement. They are now making $7.75 per hour.

Janitors today are demanding fair wages and benefits so that workers can have a better life and contribute fully to the local economy. When workers, such as these janitors, have been forced to live in abject poverty, they are less able to contribute to the local economy. This severely weakens the Houston economy and this has been recognized by local labor activists.

The rally had the full backing of Archbishop Emeritus of Houston, Joseph Fiorenza. He commented, “Whatever shape the economy might be in, people of good will are still called upon to ensure the well-being of every member of our community – especially the poor and vulnerable…This fall, janitors again will sit down with their employers to negotiate terms which, I pray, will ensure justice for all. Again we will be faced with a moral test…As people of faith, we know what our answer cannot be. It cannot be, we can love our neighbors “if unemployment is low, and the stock market is above 10,000,” or “but I can find somebody else to do the job for peanuts…A weak economy is no excuse. Houston’s wealthy building owners and cleaning contractors have the means to do what is right in the eyes of our Lord.”