Janitors strike rocks Houston, forces employers to talk

HOUSTON – Janitors here won a historic victory this past week as the contractors were forced to begin negotiations with the Service Employees International United (SEIU). The talks took place Aug. 2-3. Busloads of striking janitors marched through downtown drumming up support for their cause. Approximately 800 strikers and their supporters showed up. They marched with bullhorns, whistles, drums and chants.

The crowd then decided to free strikers who were arrested Aug. 1 for participating in acts of civil disobedience. Seven were still being held in the downtown jail while the others had been released. The strikers got on buses headed for the jail. Soon 800 strikers were amassed outside the steps of the jail chanting “justice now” and “libertad.” They were determined to stay as long as it took.

One hour later, after 27 hours of incarceration, all seven were released to the applause of the striking janitors. An incredible scene never before witnessed in Houston. The freed SEIU members were as surprised as the receptive crowd as they came out to freedom, smiling with their arms up in the air. The class struggle could be seen in the starkest terms. The power of the union, of the people united winning a great victory, forcing the Houston police to free the seven workers. You could see new strength, hope, and confidence in the faces of the men and women as they left to go home to rest so they could come back out tomorrow and continue their just struggle.

The janitors have been on strike since the end of May. Each week, the strikes get larger, louder and more unified. They are demanding a $10 an hour wage. They currently make $8.35 an hour and their employers have been unwilling to fulfill their demands. Since the strike began, the union has sent delegation after delegation to the employers to try to work out a deal, and each time, they have been asked to leave. The employers have been unwilling to cooperate and have refused to raise the janitors’ wages.

The janitors’ strike had entered a new phase last week when thousands of people marched through downtown. People from different parts of the country and many different progressive organizations came in support of the janitors. Busloads of janitors kept arriving and the crowd kept getting larger and larger. On three separate streets, hundreds of janitors, along with other trade unionists and progressive activists, marched through downtown. The janitors made their way to one of the busiest streets in Houston, Fannin St., during rush hour, and let their voices be heard. Everyone had a whistle and cheered loudly for the janitors. Four trade unionists walked into the street and sat down in an act of civil disobedience. Their fellow unionists cheered them on with the call of “Sí Se Puede!” The civil disobedience act shut down Fannin St. for over 30 minutes; all four trade unionists were arrested.

Since July 24, there have been marches nearly every day and the movement is still growing. The janitors had their largest demonstration to date on Aug. 1. The union flew its banner over I-45 during morning rush hour and, in the Galleria area, over 1,000 janitors, trade unionists, and progressive activists marched. They marched on two different streets to the busiest intersection of Houston: Westheimer and Post-Oak Blvd. When they arrived at the intersection, approximately 30 trade unionists walked into the middle of the intersection and sat in civil disobedience. On all four sides of the intersection, their fellow trade unionists cheered them on. The feeling of unity was very strong and it was very exciting to be there. The 30 brave trade unionists occupied the middle of the intersection for over an hour. When the cops ordered them to get up, they refused, heroically remaining seated. The cops had their vehicle ready but it was too small and they required a large bus to remove all of the trade unionists. These heroic trade unionists remained seated and were dragged out of the intersection by the cops, and then thrown into the police buses. All 30 were arrested.

Photo: SEIU Local 1.