Following on the heels of two days of record-breaking acts of non-violent civil disobedience in Houston, last Friday janitors and their supporters spoke out against being charged by mounted police.
More than 1,700 janitors, members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are in the fourth week of a strike in key buildings in Galleria, Greenway Plaza, and downtown Houston.
Janitors who clean the majority of Houston’s office space have been among the lowest wages and benefits of any major city in the United States—earning an average of $5.30/hour with no health or other benefits for almost exclusively part-time work.
Since forming a union with SEIU last year, more than 5,300 janitors have been seeking a raise to $8.50/hour, more hours, and health insurance in contract talks with the city’s five largest cleaning companies, ABM, OneSource, GCA, Sanitors, and Pritchard.
On Thursday night, Houston police responded with violence to striking janitors’ non-violent protest.
Forty-four janitors and supporters were arrested, and four were injured.
Janitors and supporters held a press conference after a court hearing on Friday, on the steps of Harris County Criminal Justice Centre.
Announcing updates on injuries sustained by workers and supporters on Thursday night, union officials reported the hospitalisation of at least one janitor, 83-year-old Hazel Ingram.
Workers reported their lives were endangered as mounted police used horses to break up an act of conscience.
Community activists and leaders expressed concern and dismay at the police’s use of horses to intimidate and corral janitors participating in non-violent civil disobedience.
The police’s choice to use horses to stop the protest resulted in four people being injured, including the 83-year-old janitor from New York.
‘Houston has to make a decision whether they are going to use their power to grind workers deeper into poverty or use their power to lift workers out of poverty,’ said Tom Balanoff, President of SEIU Local 1.
‘We hope the aggressive tactic employed against the janitors last night was a regrettable mistake on the part of the police and it won’t be repeated.’
Last Thursday night at approximately 4:45 pm local time, as the janitors began to sit down peacefully in the intersection of Travis and Capitol outside the JP Morgan Chase buildings in downtown Houston, Houston Police Department mounted police charged violently into the intersection to break up the demonstration, endangering workers’ lives and using their horses to physically intimidate the peaceful protesters.
Workers report they were stepped on by horses leaving an unknown number of protesters with bruises and other injuries.
Hazel Ingram, an 83-year-old janitor from New York City, was rushed to Ben Taub Hospital for an injury sustained on her arm.
Ms Ingram is a 52-year member of SEIU Local 32BJ.
Local 32BJ issued a statement regarding arrests and hospitalisation of New York City-based janitors protesting in Houston.
The following statement is attributable to Mike Fishman, Local 32BJ President: ‘Local 32BJ members who earn good wages and benefits were taking a stand for those who don’t.
‘They, along with janitors from around the country, were engaged in an act of peaceful protest and the response of the Houston Police Department was violent and inappropriate.
‘We call on employers to bring this strike to an end.’
Houston Janitor Mateo Portillo, 33, described the experience: ‘The horses came all of a sudden.
‘They started jumping on top of people. I heard the women screaming.
‘A horse stomped on top of me. I fell to the ground and hurt my arm.
‘The horses just kept coming at us. I was terrified.
‘I never thought the police would do something so aggressive, so violent.’
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee said in a statement on Friday regarding the janitors’ protest:
‘Yesterday at approximately 4:45 p.m. CT, fifty demonstrators, including SEIU janitors from Houston, SEIU janitors from other cities and supporters, were engaged in a non-violent act of civil disobedience at the intersection of Capitol and Travis Streets in downtown Houston, a major intersection flanked by three buildings owned by national landlord JP Morgan Chase.
‘The janitors were challenging Houston’s real estate industry to settle the strike and provide 5,300 janitors in Houston with higher wages and affordable health insurance.
‘Workers have reported that they were stepped on by horses leaving an unknown number of protesters with bruises and other injuries.
‘The number of workers who sustained injuries is currently unknown. Immediately after the act of violence, the police arrested the protesters and put them on a bus and took them in for booking.
‘A protest is a sign of freedom in the United States and exercises our basic rights to free speech.
‘I am calling for a swift and fair resolution to this matter before more people get hurt needlessly.’
In the previous two days, more than 60 union janitors from Houston and other cities around the country, along with union leaders and community supporters, were arrested for engaging in civil disobedience in separate protests at the Chevron headquarters and the intersection of Travis and Capitol outside the JP Morgan Chase buildings in downtown Houston.
On Wednesday, janitors and supporters in 20 cities staged a variety of demonstrations at Chevron stations and Chevron-owned buildings, including acts of non-violent civil disobedience at Chevron corporate headquarters in San Ramon and Houston, to prompt the oil-giant to intervene and ensure that the janitors who clean up after them are provided with health insurance and decent wages.
Twenty-four janitors and supporters were arrested in the two actions.
More than 100 SEIU members and community supporters gathered outside Chevron Corp’s global headquarters in San Ramon, California.
The high energy crowd held pictures and banners of the Houston janitors, blocked traffic and received the support of passers by.
Ten people were arrested for blocking traffic after an hour of protesting with chants of ‘Health care for janitors’ and ‘Shame on Chevron’.
Participating organisations include SEIU Local 1877, SEIU Local 715, SEIU Local 535, SEIU Local 87, SEIU UHW and EBASE.
A number of Congressmen and Senators made the following ‘Statement in Support of the Houston Janitors and the Use of Civil Disobedience’ :–
‘At many junctures in our nation’s history, people of good will have courageously and nonviolently refused to cooperate with injustice by engaging in nonviolent protest and civil disobedience—including the Boston Tea Party, Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, and the fight for women to gain the right to vote.
‘In 1961, civil rights activists engaged in Freedom Rides to the Deep South. These caravans of African Americans and whites travelled far and wide to protest Jim Crow segregation.
‘Inspired by the Freedom Riders, janitors from across the country are flying to Houston to fight injustice by engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience.
‘Their cause is just. Houston janitors work hard mopping, dusting, scrubbing, and polishing thousands of offices each and every day. For their efforts, they are paid $20 a day and receive no health insurance. Most of them live in poverty.
‘The goal of these “Freedom Flyers” is to promote workers’ rights, civil liberties, and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.
‘We applaud the bravery and courage of these janitors, who will be risking arrest to fight for a better future for all American workers. Victory by the Houston janitors will build momentum for a new movement for better jobs and affordable health care in Houston and throughout the southern United States.’