Photos by SEIU
We’ve all had those days driving down I-45 when we happen to look over and catch a majestic sunset framing our city skyline. Those soaring buildings, on some level, validate our incredible human ingenuity. However, a recent dispute between the property managers and the workers who clean those same buildings reminds us that every step we’ve taken forward as a species always seems to be followed by several steps backwards.
A six hour work day in the life of Maria Teresa Lopez, a janitor who works at Greenway Plaza One here in Houston, consists of cleaning approximately 100 toilets/urinals, 55 sinks, 22 large mirrors and taking out the trash for an entire floor. She works 30 hours a week at $8.35 an hour which equates to barely $9,000 a year after taxes. That’s not a living wage; it’s a bargain buy of human labor at twenty-two cents per bathroom fixture. Conceivably, multibillion dollar corporations such as Chevron, Hines, Exxon Mobil, Brookfield, Shell Oil and JPMorgan Chase likely spend more money on the toilet paper they use to stock their bathrooms than the wages they pay their janitors.
Hundreds of Houston janitors were forced to go on strike after employers punished them for fighting for a living wage in an attempt to raise their families out of poverty. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) currently represents approximately 3,200 Houston area janitors. The janitors’ union contract was set to expire on May 31st and negotiations leading up to that date were not well received by the building owners and their contractors. Houston janitors asked for a well-deserved and yet modest raise to just $10 an hour that would be phased in over a four year period. However, the building owners and their contractors responded with just a fifty cent raise over the next five years. The unionized janitors refused the counter offer and were immediately greeted with intimidation and harassment at the hands of their employers. Almost as soon as bargaining broke down, contractors began to punish, threaten, and even fire workers believed to be union activists. This instigated the janitors to authorize a city-wide unfair labor practice strike. According to janitor Lidia Aguillon, “We’re striking because we have no other option. We can’t make ends meet on what we are paid, and when we stand up for ourselves, we’re punished and harassed.” Aguillon and her coworkers from Williams Tower joined the strike in its third day and have been on strike ever since.
In Houston almost 500 janitors from 43 different buildings are on strike, and every day their numbers continue to propagate. However, the scope of this fight is no longer only centralized to Houston or even Texas for that matter. Currently the strike has spread from the Gulf coast to both the East and West coasts along with multiple cities in-between. Janitorial picket lines have been established in Oakland, Seattle, Minneapolis, Washington, San Ramon, Boston, Denver and Los Angeles. And seeing as the SEIU represents more than 150,000 janitors nationwide, solidarity seems to be their powerhouse. Strategic solidarity is one of those magical tools that the working class can wield as a scalpel and the effects feel more like a sledgehammer. This might explain why here in Texas, corporations have so ruthlessly fought to not just keep unions from forming but likening the term “union” to that of a dirty unspeakable word.
After almost three weeks of building managers refusing to even come to the table for another round of negotiations, civil disobedience came knocking on their door. In 1963, while confined to a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, the godfather of civil disobedience Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. poetically identified why civil disobedience is a necessity when he wrote, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” And this is exactly what occurred on the streets of Houston in the early afternoon of July 18th when 15 people, myself included, strategically blocked the intersection at Smith and Bell. This particular intersection happens to be directly in front of the Chevron Building and around the corner from the Exxon Mobil and Brookfield owned buildings. Yes it was planned and 15 of the 16 people arrested that day arrived with the intentions of leaving in the back of a police car. One of the arrestees, who had no intentions of being arrested that day, was specifically targeted by the police due to her direct involvement with SEIU.
The protest began at 1100 Louisiana where over 250 janitors, their families, and community members marched their way towards the very buildings that insist on perpetuating poverty in our city. As we approached our designated intersection nervous and excited glances were exchanged between us all. Simultaneously, as the light turned red and the crosswalk man blinked “yes” in our direction, someone shouted, “Go!” The 14 of us darted for the middle of the intersection, linked arms, created a perfect circle, and began singing the old hymn, “We Shall Not Be Moved.” The crowd erupted with chants and cheers as the police scattered in all directions to try and regain some amount of the control they so obviously felt they had lost. For over 30 minutes we sat strongly linked together singing to the buildings, the workers, their employers, each other, and the sky. As the police gathered their zip ties and paperwork and prepared to arrest us, a sense of solidarity and strength was etched on each and every face around me.
I, personally, cannot recall a time in my life where I felt more connected and inspired by so many people that I didn’t know. It became apparent that this action, while specifically linked to the plight of our local janitors, was something far larger and more significant to humanity as a whole. If one of us is suffering and we sit back and allow it or wait for someone else to do something about it nothing will ever change.
One by one, we were arrested and loaded into cop cars and a paddy wagon and transported first to city jail and later to county. Being in an environment that is specifically created to dehumanize and punish people fostered a highly personal experience for each and everyone one of us. One general consensus that did emerge after we were released and reunited was that our prison system is extremely broken – so broken, that it warrants its own article or five. Being in jail, for me, was life altering in ways that I am just now beginning to explore and process. It is a societal system that is failing and targeting very specific communities. Currently I feel as though the issues regarding our prison system are bigger than language, and any attempt on my part to put it into words would not do it justice. I think this is in part because this particular societal injustice does not have a clear cut solution. It is one of those problems that imprint a sense of helplessness on your soul and is not what this particular article is about. This article is about solidarity and proving to Houston, our nation, and the world that change is possible. It is only when we stand together and make sacrifices for the benefit of others that we will truly begin to have a better quality of life.