By James Thompson
HOUSTON – I joined a group of courageous young people today (6/6/09) to demand living wages for workers at the University of Houston (UH). A diverse group of about 20 people including mostly University of Houston students car pooled to UH administrator Emily Messa’s home. There were people from the UH Students for Fair Trade, Houston Peace and Justice Center, Coalition of Working People and the Poor, Jobs with Justice, UAW, Black Panthers, and other left organizations. I found out about the action on Facebook.
There were two major issues that the rally addressed. First was the demand that Aramark workers be paid a living wage ($11 an hour) on the University of Houston campus. Currently janitors and food service workers are paid poverty wages. The second demand was that the practice of doing business with distributors who source products from an area in Florida that has had seven prosecutions for slavery since 1997 be stopped.
The rally was uplifting and energetic. Loud chants of “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! and “The people united will never be defeated!” in English and Spanish disturbed the quiet, mostly Anglo suburban Houston neighborhood on a hot Saturday morning. The rally went off with no major incidents of violence, however it was not without friction. Neighbors of the UH administrator were irate and confronted participants. One of the neighbors attempted to provoke the demonstrators, primarily the Black Panthers, by shouting and pushing. The participants refused to be provoked and attempted to reason with the individual.
Five Houston Police Department squad cars converged on the rally. Some participants quipped that this was a five alarm demonstration. However, when the HPD officers saw the sound permit, they backed off and merely observed to ensure there was no violence. Given the hot tempered neighbors, their presence was a stabilizing force.
The UH student’s statement read “Ms Messa’s actions indicate to us that she feels her job is to increase the profits of corporations on the UH campus instead of serving the taxpayers and students who pay her salary. When students asked the contractor who brings the unethically sourced goods on our campus to send a letter to his supervisor voicing the student’s concerns, Ms. Messa blocked our request and has continued to put up roadblocks against the students in an attempted cover up of their inaction.”
The flyer concluded “Slavery was outlawed over a hundred years ago.”
More information about the organization can be found on www.uhfairtrade.org.