Show of solidarity, new ad campaign support striking Houston janitors

The first wave of Freedom Flyers arrived in Houston on Tuesday and staged a sit-in to support striking janitors at a downtown Houston office building. Seven were arrested. On Thursday, SEIU Local 1, the striking janitors’ union, launched a nationwide online ad campaign aimed at JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, whose bank like many large corporations with offices in downtown Houston play a key role in keeping janitors’ wages low while at the same time seeking preferential treatment from local governments to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

The ads, whose tagline is “Call Me, Maybe,” include a link that allows viewers to send an email appeal to Dimon urging him to meet with striking janitor Adriana Vasquez, who last month confronted Dimon in Washington demanding to know why his corporation was putting pressure on Houston cleaning contractors to keep janitors’ wages low.

Dimon’s response to Vasquez was, call my office and set up an appointment. Vasquez has called Dimon’s office repeatedly but so far has not received a call back.

“The ads will be on more than 1,00 websites, including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, the Nation Magazine and other national publications,” said Ar’Sheil Sinclair of Good Jobs, Great Houston, a community group supporting the janitors. “Additional ads have also been launched tying national real estate firms Brookfield Properties to poverty wages in Houston.”

The ad campaign was launched at the same time that new research shows that JP Morgan, Brookfield Properties, and other large corporations routinely game the system for appealing commercial property tax appraisals to lower their property taxes below market value.

These manuevers cost local governments and school districts more than $65 million in 2011, a year in which state cuts to education funding caused the layoffs of about 3,000 teachers locally.

While corporate leaders like Dimon seek million dollar tax breaks, the janitors who clean their offices must get by on about $9,000 a year, the average pay of a Houston janitor.

Low wages paid by high rollers is beginning to draw attention from people concerned about the injustice of the growing inequality between those who own and those who work for a living. A group of local political leaders including US Rep. Sheila Lee Jackson and US Rep. Gene Green recently signed a statement urging all people of good conscience to support the janitors.

“Our country is engaged in a struggle over our most basic values—that hard work should be rewarded with fair pay. Those values are being challenged as the gap between the wealthiest 1 percent and the rest of the country grows wider and leads to the creation of a second class of workers who are locked into poverty,” reads the opening paragraph of the statement.

Meanwhile, five janitors who are members of SEIU in Chicago traveled to Houston to stage a sit-in at One Allen Center in downtown Houston in support of their striking brothers and sisters. They are the first of a wave of other supporters called Freedom Flyers who will be coming to Houston to stage other acts of solidarity with the Houston janitors. The five and two others were arrested after they blocked an escalator in the building.

“Today I am proudly taking a stand, so that workers everywhere know there is strength when you unite together,” said Matilde Reyes, one of the arrested janitors. “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, 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.” 

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