CHICAGO - Support for striking Houston janitors mushroomed all over the country yesterday with a demonstration at Chase Bank here and with marches and rallies at 16 other cities across the country.
The support actions were held as more than two dozen janitors and their supporters were arrested during peaceful civil disobedience actions in Houston. The total arrested thus far during the four-week unfair labor practices strike in Houston is 69.
The protests in Chicago and elsewhere yesterday saw hundreds of janitors and their supporters turn up in front of buildings cleaned by the same contractors that employ Houston janitors.
Demonstrators descended on office buildings in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York City, Portland, San Diego, San Ramon, Seattle, St. Louis, Toronto, and Washington D.C.The demonstrations yesterday.
"I can't even guess how a Houston janitor making only $9,000 a year can possibly survive," said Sandra Gomez, a Chicago janitor who rallied here today. "I'm in the union and with my job at least I can raise my two kids. I'm backing the guys in Houston because no one should have to suffer in poverty when they work full time or be forced to go out and get yet another job so they have no time for their kids."
Houston janitors also suffer from overwork, often having to clean more than 90 toilets per night in some of the most exclusive buildings in the city, union spokespeople say. They are asking for a salary increase to $10 per hour.
So far the contractors have rejected consideration of any raises. The union says that one of the New York-based contractors, Pritchard, is actually terminating janitors for supporting the union.
"We're striking because we have no other option," says Houston janitor Lidia Aguillon. "We can't make ends meet on what we are paid, and when we stand up for ourselves, we're punished and harassed."
Support from janitors nationwide and from the Service Employees International Union continues to grow. The union has pledged more than half a million dollars to support the strikers with SEIU's executive vice president, Valerie Long, saying, "and this is just a start. While we hope the building owners will do the right thing and end poverty wages, we will make sure the janitors in Houston have the money to keep fighting as long as they need to."
Several Chicago janitors are among those who have been arrested in Houston. One of them, Maria Pina, whose husband is also a janitor, said, "I have four children so I know how important it is to be able to provide for your family. Between my job and my husband's job as a union janitor we have been able to give our children the foundation for a future. I want that for all other working people too."
Josefina Carrasco, another Chicago union janitor arrested in Houston said, "I know the fear that so many have to live with, the fear that you could lose your job for speaking up. Janitors in Houston can't risk arrest without risking their jobs too. I can, so I will."
Still another Chicago janitor arrested in Houston, Matilde Reyes, said, before her arrest, "I am taking a stand so that workers everywhere know that there is strength when you unite together. We follow a long line of freedom fighters who have taken arrest, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez - they did it for us, and now we do it for Houston janitors.
"This can help the whole world," Reyes added. "Because this type of mistreatment of working people is happening everywhere - and standing together, we have the power to create good jobs and a better life for working people."
Photo: Janitors arrested in Houston for peaceful civil disobedience. Photo courtesy of SEIU Local 1.