‘The eyes of the nation are on Houston!’

Last Thursday’s peaceful protest by Houston janitors being broken up by mounted police, injuring five protestors
Last Thursday’s peaceful protest by Houston janitors being broken up by mounted police, injuring five protestors

AS contract negotiations between local Houston janitors in Texas, USA and five national cleaning firms continue today, people of faith and conscience from around the country are making plans to fly to Houston to pay witness to the struggle in Houston to lift thousands of janitors out of poverty.

At the bargaining table are the national cleaning firms ABM, OneSource, GCA Services, Sanitors, and Pritchard, and representatives of 5,300 Houston janitors, currently paid just $20 a day with no health insurance for part-time work.

Janitors and their supporters are also planning demonstrations at public venues cleaned by the five major contractors Houston janitors are striking.

In the last two weeks, more than 80 people have been arrested for participating in acts of conscience challenging the poverty conditions and lack of health insurance faced by thousands of Houston workers and their families.

‘We call on Houston’s building owners and managers to use their power to settle the strike and commit to using only responsible cleaning firms willing to help janitors and their families rise out of poverty,’ said Tom Balanoff, President of SEIU Local 1 in Chicago, and the Houston janitors’ chief negotiator.

Most janitorial service contracts include a 30-day ‘at-will’ cancellation clause.

The eyes of the nation are on Houston.

The janitors’ strike, now entering week five, has intensified into a national fight against the poverty wages and lack of health insurance that are limiting the opportunities of thousands of Houston service workers and their families.

Media coverage of the janitors’ strike in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other prominent national media organisations is putting a national spotlight on the large number of poverty wage jobs and exceptionally high rate of uninsured workers in the Houston area.

Houston’s janitors are paid just $20 a day with no health insurance, among the lowest levels of pay and benefits of any workers in America.

US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee was quoted in the Washington Post Friday saying, ‘The image of a city standing against working people who are trying to elevate themselves is not an image that represents Houston. I’m not going to let my city be projected that way.’

The Houston Police Department’s use of horses as a tactic to intimidate and corral janitors participating in non-violent civil disobedience on Thursday night is being criticised by elected and community leaders and in the national media.

Maria Jimenez, Special Projects Coordinator of the local community organisation CRECEN said, ‘We all cherish the freedom we have to pursue a better life and speak up for what we believe in.

‘The use of these tactics by the police is a choice to try and break the spirit of hard-working Americans. These police tactics are wrong and will never be successful.’

A statement in support of the use of non-violent civil disobedience in support of Houston janitors has been signed more than 20 national and local African American and Hispanic Members of Congress and civil rights leaders, including US Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green, and John Lewis, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and civil rights leaders Rev. James Lawson and Rev. James Orange.

‘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,’ the statement reads in part.

Workers from Houston and around the country say the police’s rough tactics have only deepened their resolve to fight as long as it takes and do whatever it takes for janitors to be able to support their families and have basic health insurance.

‘This is not the Houston I know,’ said local janitor Diana Morales.

Diana works for OneSource at the Hines-owned Pennzoil Place North building.

She is paid $5.15 an hour without health insurance. Diana was arrested Thursday night participating in non-violent civil disobedience and released Friday night.

‘I believe this is a city of opportunity, not a place where $20 a day is your fate.

‘This is not a city where people who speak out for a better life get thrown in jail and mistreated.

‘The future of our families and our city is at stake and we are going to continue to stand up for what we believe is right.’

Anna Denise Solís, a Texas-raised SEIU staff member currently living in San Jose, CA, was one of the peaceful protestors arrested Thursday night.

She reported severe mistreatment by Houston Police of the peaceful protestors in jail.

She said that Guards ignored a severely diabetic woman who had collapsed, and continued with a roll call.

She added that guards kicking the cast of a woman with a fractured arm and that guards called female protestors, ‘whores’.

‘They tried to break us down, to dehumanize us, but we were stronger,’ said Solís.

‘Now we’re ready to fight on. Houston can’t go on like this, with so many living in poverty.’

The police’s choice to use horses to stop the protest resulted in at least five people being severely injured.

These included an 83-year old female janitor from New York.

Additionally, in an attempt to limit the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech by the workers, an overly zealous Harris County District Attorney requested Friday night the extraordinarily high bond of $888,888 cash for 44 of the 46 peaceful protestors arrested Thursday.

The standard bond rate for a Class B misdemeanor is $500 to $1000.

The bond rates were later reduced by a magistrate judge to $1,000 per person.