Actor and reps. support Houston janitors; banker snubs them

Actor Danny Glover, US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, and Texas Representative Al Green last week  told a public meeting that they stand with Houston janitors who are waging a campaign for a fair pay increase.

The janitors, who work for cleaning contractors that clean office buildings for large corporations like JP Morgan Chase, currently make $8.35 an hour. They want to raise their wage to $10 an hour.

The janitors, who belong to SEIU Local 1, were bargaining with the contractors until May when the two sides reached an impasse. The contractors said that they couldn’t raise wages to $10 an hour because corporations that use their services are pressuring them to maintain or lower the cost of their services.

“We have to decide what kind of country we are going to be,” Glover said to the audience. “As citizens, it is our duty and responsibility to stand up for a living wage, to make this change and take this country back. Yes, we may be talking about just 3,400 janitors, but we know it is much bigger than Houston. At the same time that corporations are reporting record profits, janitors are not making a living wage.”

Three weeks ago when the janitors demonstrated in front of JP Morgan Chase offices in downtown Houston to demand that JP Morgan allow its cleaning contractors to pay a decent wage, the janitors and their supporters that include members of the Texas Organizing Project, Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center, and others were attacked by Houston police on horseback.

Rep. Jackson Lee told the audience that the janitors’ right to publicly protest is essential if the workers are going to be able to make their case for a decent wage increase and that she was taking steps to ensure this right.

“We will not stand by while the first amendment rights of Houston janitors are violated,” Jackson Lee said to the audience. “I am here today to announce that we will call upon a task force of observers to protect Houston’s janitor’s right to protest.”

Since bargaining reached an impasse, the janitors, who voted on May 31 to authorize a strike if the contractors refuse to pay a decent wage, have mounted a campaign that includes protests and other actions to win public support and to show contractors that the janitors are willing to fight for a fair wage increase.

In early June, 11 janitors working for the New York-based cleaning contractor Pritchard went on a one-day strike at the Greenway Plaza office complex to protest threats and harassment by their employer. Pritchard subsequently refused to allow the janitors to return to work, and SEIU filed an unfair labor practice charge against the company.

Later in the month, Adriana Vasquez, a janitor who cleans the JP Morgan Chase building, traveled to Washington DC to personally ask JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon why his bank, which made $19 billion in profits last year, would oppose a fair but modest wage increase for its janitors.

Dimon was in Washington to testify before a congressional committee. When he left the hearing, Vasquez confronted him, but Dimon brushed Vasquez aside and told her to call his office to make an appointment.

The next day in Houston, janitors and supporters marched to Chase Towers to confront Hines, an international property management firm that manages JP Morgan’s office building. Demonstrators demanded that Hines and other large property management firms pay a fair share of taxes, provide good jobs, and ensure that the rights of janitors who clean their buildings are protected.

At the July 5 public meeting attended by Glover, Jackson Lee, and Green, Alice McAfee, a Houston janitor, described the importance of the work janitors do and what it’s like to live on a janitor’s pay.

“Who would want to work in a dirty office or eat in a dirty kitchen,” McAfee said. “We are paid so little that we have to choose between turning on the air conditioning and eating that day. That’s not the Houston we know and love.”

Glover told the crowd that the only way for workers like McAfee to get justice is to rebuild the labor movement.  “The revitalization of unions is vital to the fight for better wages,” he said.

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