Police on horseback charged into public space occupied by Houston janitors and their supporters on Thursday trampling their banner, knocking down people, and arresting one woman who came to the aid of an injured man on the ground. The janitors, who belong to SEIU Local 1, were demonstrating in downtown Houston for a fair wage increase as part of the “Houston Needs a Raise” campaign.
The janitors had been bargaining with seven cleaning service contractors whose employees clean corporate offices in downtown Houston.
When negotiations for a new contract began in May, the janitors proposed an increase that would raise their wages from $8.35 an hour to $10 an hour. Their employers countered with an offer that would raise wages over the next five years by only $0.50 an hour. Talks broke down at the end of May, and the janitors have been working without a new contract since then.
On Thursday a broad coalition including SEIU Local 1, Good Jobs Great Houston, Houston United, HFT/CUT, TOPS, Mi Familia Vota, HOPE Local 123, MoveOn, Houston Interfaith Workers Justice Center, and Down with Wage Theft marched from Tranquility Park in downtown Houston to the office of JP Morgan Chase to demand that the cleaning contractors pay their workers a fair wage.
The contractors say that their offer of a $0.50 an hour raise over five years is a fair offer because it reflects labor market conditions and that even if they wanted to pay more, they couldn’t because their corporate clients will not pay more for cleaning services.
The janitors, whose base salary is less than $9,000 a year, say that their pay is not enough on which to live much less support a family when, according to the US Census Bureau, it takes an annual income of at least $22,000 for a family of four to live above the poverty line.
The janitor’s plight is shared by many others in Houston where 22 percent of the city’s residents live in poverty. Like the janitors, many are hard-working, low-paid workers.
While Houston’s low-wage workers struggle to make ends meet, the city’s millionaires are doing all right. Forbes magazine recently named Houston as the number one millionaire city in the US and the Houston commercial real estate market is booming. But the contractors and their corporate clients contend that there isn’t enough money to give the janitors a decent raise.
The marchers chose the building that houses JP Morgan’s Houston headquarters because it symbolizes the wide disparity between Houston’s 1 percent and the workers who provide essential and often unrecognized and unappreciated services for them. JP Morgan last year reported $19 billion in profit while the janitors who clean their building make less than the official poverty level.
The police charged the march as marchers were crossing the street and headed toward the sidewalk outside the JP Morgan headquarters. The marchers were not sitting down in the street; they weren’t threatening the safety of anyone; they were spirited and determined but peaceful and non-violent.
When the mounted police charged, some of the marchers couldn’t get out of the way fast enough and were knocked to the ground. An unidentified woman in a purple t-shirt came to the aid of one of the fallen marchers and confronted a mounted police officer. He dismounted, other officers on foot came to his assistance, and the woman was handcuffed and led away.
After the attack, the marchers regrouped on the sidewalk outside of JP Morgan and began chanting, “Shame” as the police looked on. The marchers held their ground and continued their demonstration.
The march was part of an ongoing campaign for justice by Houston janitors. In 2006 they organized a union, went on strike, and won recognition of their union. But janitorial work in Houston remains low-paying work because the big corporations that occupy the city’s downtown sky scrapers nickel and dime their cleaning contractors to keep labor costs low.
This lack of fairness has led to a citywide Houston Needs a Raise Campaign that brings together labor, the faith community, and community organizations to raise awareness of the janitors’ predicament.
“Let us be in solidarity with the janitors for a fair and modest increase in their wages,” wrote Joseph Fiorenza, archbishop-emeritus of the Houston-Galveston Diocese in a recent letter to the Houston Chronicle. “Let Houston be known for doing what is only decent and right for our hard-working fellow citizens: justice for janitors.”