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Interview with Chipsterlife

13 Jul


Chipsterlife – which, by the way, is the best name for a Latino podcast, ever – interviewed me this week. Filiberto is another recovering academic doing social justice work, and his podcast is pretty cool. You can listen to the podcast here.  His synopsis:

Based in Minneapolis, SEIU Local 26 under the leadership of Javier Morillo-Alicea has been at the center of the fight to defend low wage workers against increasing wage disparities in our economy and society. Most recently Mr. Morillo-Alicea was arrested at the Minneapolis Airport,

“13 people, including leaders in the disability rights community, community activists, and SEIU Local 26 President Javier Morillo-Alicea were arrested today at the Minneapolis-St. Paul  (MSP) International Airport in an act of peaceful civil disobedience. The arrestees were highlighting the poor conditions facing passengers with disabilities and elderly travelers, a consequence of the poverty wages and lack of resources provided to the workers sub-contracted by Delta Airlines to provide wheelchair and electric cart service.”

Our conversation was a wide ranging one discussing Mr. Morillo-Alicea’s vision for change and the relationship between SEIU and low wage worker center CTUL and the role in general of worker centers in the fight for a better economy. We also discuss his flooded office, as Mr Morillo Alicea describes in his own words, “The river has flooded into the basement at Local 26. Bring your bathing suits everyone!”

He also participates in a podcast, “Wrong About Everything is a fun, irreverent and bipartisan podcast focused on Minnesota politics. “


Talking is easier than writing… Or I have a podcast!

2 Jul 20140702-085531-32131345.jpg

20140702-084444-31484150.jpg“Wrong About Everything,” a fun, irreverent and bipartisan look at Minnesota politics, launched a few weeks ago. It features two progressives (me and Denise Cardinal, the founding Executive Director of the Alliance for a Better Minnesota. She crushes Republicans for a living. The two Republicans are Brian McDaniel , a bear Republican lobbyist with a potty mouth and Mike Franklin, a GOP political operative who we settled for when we couldn’t find a funny Republican woman.

In our most recent episode, we talk about President Obama’s visit to Minnesota, the Pew Institute’s poll on political polarization in the country, GOP candidates’ hair, and the group gangs up on me with hateful musical selections.

Comment there or on our Facebook page . Tell is what you think and what topics you’d like us to cover. We have some exciting announcements coming up about the podcast, so stay tuned!

Minimum Wage & Movement Politics: On the Fight For Indexing

22 Mar

This past Thursday the four locals of SEIU in Minnesota held our annual lobby day at the Capitol. The top lobbying priority for SEIU members talked to their elected representatives about is raising the state’s minimum wage and indexing that increase to inflation.  I emceed a rally that capped off our day in Saint Paul and quickly learned it is not easy to come up with a union chant that rhymes with “Index.”  I settled for probably the weirdest and wonkiest chant heard at the Capitol in a while: “What do we want? MINIMUM WAGE! How do we want it? INDEXED!”

On the surface, the fight for indexing the minimum wage —  ensuring that the increase that is passed becomes a base and that future increases match inflation–might seem a bit in the weeds. I have heard suggestions that “most people don’t understand it, so what’s the harm in just passing the $9.50 alone?”

After the rally, I was asked by someone pretty high up in state government if indexing was a line in the sand for the coalition. The person asked, “Can we take a victory and live to fight another day?”  This is actually a really good question.  I am one who often argues that, when it comes to politics, let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Raise the Wage - INDEXEDSo why is the fight for indexing so important that the Raise the Wage Coalition has kept the charge going?  To answer this, it would be helpful to remind ourselves what it is we talk about when we talk about the minimum wage.

No one can dispute that, even if we raise the wage to $9.50, that does not get a full-time worker supporting a family out of poverty according to the federal government’s own definition of poverty.   What we are arguing about, friends, is a floor.

Now think about the effort that has been put together to convince a DFL legislature to pass a bill.  Last year the Senate passed a bill for with a $7.75 an hour wage, which would have put us barely past conforming with the federal minimum wage (right now, Minnesota’s minimum wage is significantly lower than the federal minimum wage). To get them to move to $9.50 Minnesotans across the state mobilized to make their voices heard.  Oh, and the president and governor of the same party as the Senate’s majority set the bar even higher than $9.50.

Some of the best organizing and policy minds in the state are intensely focused right now on passing this minimum wage bill.  The Raise the Wage Coalition has been impressively co-chaired by Shar Knutson of the AFL-CIO, Peggy Flanagan of the Minnesota Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), and Brian Rusche of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (JRLC). The people moving phone banks, working at the Capitol and on weekends in districts, generating emails and calls to legislators — these are leaders of some of the most important social justice organizations in the state — non-profits like CDF, the Wilder Foundation, and many more; clergy and faith groups like the JRLC, which unites Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim entities, as well as ISAIAH’s coalition of over 100 churches; community organizations like Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, Take Action Minnesta and many more; unions like Education Minnesota, AFSCME, SEIU, the AFL-CIO’S state and regional federations, and many more.

The best organizers of the social justice movement in Minnesota are working tirelessly for this minimum wage increase, as we must. It is an impressive operation, but we cannot forget what it is we talk about the minimum wage.  The best minds of the social justice movement in Minnesota are immersed in a debate about the floor. Our best organizers, leaders and policy thinkers are debating essentially how poor we as a society are willing to let workers live.

This is not the visionary work a movement for social justice.  Again, this work is essential and we should all be proud of the collective effort, but let’s not kid ourselves about what we are doing here.  The heavy lift everyone is undertaking is to debate a freaking floor.  A Minimum. Can you imagine if all of that effort were directed at rebuilding the wealth of communities that was extracted as a result of the financial crisis?  Can you imagine if we as a movement were focused not on debating minimum wages but instead asking what we are going to do as a society about those making maximum wages, the CEOs whose salaries are so out of whack in this country?  What if we were all focused on offense, on fights that take head-on the growing gap between the richest in the country and the rest of us?  What if we were debating how we bring more prosperity instead of how low we can go?

Now that would be a movement.

Dorkiest Chant Ever. "What do We Want? MINIMUM WAGE! How do we want it? INDEXED!"

Dorkiest Chant Ever. “What do We Want? MINIMUM WAGE! How do we want it? INDEXED!”


So the working poor do not have to see the power of their dollar diminish year after year

So we do not have to keep fighting this battle every few years.

And, for God’s sakes, so our most talented organizers and thousands of grassroots activists don’t have to move heaven and earth to accomplish small vision wins and can instead focus on the transformational victories working people in this country long for and desperately need.

We Can Do This.  We Will Do This.

There are encouraging signs.  We know the grassroots mobilization has had an impact.  We hear it from legislative aides exhausted from taking calls and answering emails.  We hear it from legislators themselves, some of whom are thrilled and some of whom are annoyed and say things like “you’re only hurting yourselves” (pro tip: a sign you’re winning).

The legislature just passed and the governor signed a tax bill that, in addition to reducing taxes on many middle and working class folks, also happens to reduce the amount the very wealthy in our state pay in gift and estate taxes.  The tax bill passed with a lot of urgency and fanfare.

Let’s apply the same urgency to getting this done so we can focus on transformational work.

I know we’re going to win this.  The people who mobilized are going to win this.  Let’s get this done and then harness that energy and move on to truly transformational work.

Minimum Rage: Update & What You Can Do

10 Mar

The Minimum Wage Conference Committee will meet this evening.  Below there is a list of ways you can help keep up the pressure to pass a $9.50 minimum wage, INDEXED to inflation.  But first, a talking point update.

Did the Senate Move? Yes, It Did. But…

We’re hearing that Senators feel like they haven’t been given adequate credit for moving from their original position of $7.75 to the House’s offer of $9.50 an hour.

Here is what is not to say when you call your State Senator, true as it may be

Seriously? Let’s set aside for a second the fact that the bill the Senate passed last year was embarrassing even then.  The $7.75 was barely better than the some Republicans’ position of simply conforming to the federal minimum wage.  What has happened between then and now?

Governor Dayton: "I'll settle for $9.50"

Governor Dayton: “I’ll settle for $9.50″

For one, Governor Dayton has talked about the $9.50 as a floor. “I’d settle for $9.50,” he has said.  Oh, and nationally, the President of the United States made the minimum wage a centerpiece of his State of the Union address, praising Minnesota company Punch Pizza for raising its entry wage to $10 an hour.  And then he signed an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay a $10.10 hourly minimum wage, an idea put forward by Minnesota’s own progressive champion Congressman Keith Ellison.

Did the Senate move? Well, yes, if we define “move” as catching up to the rest of the nation and state.

Now that you’ve got that out of your system…

Here is what you should when calling your Senator:

“Thank you for moving to the house’s $9.50.  Now let’s find a compromise that includes indexing the minimum wage to inflation and get this done!”


The issue holding up a bargain remains the question of indexing the minimum wage to inflation so that (a) the working poor do not see the value of their dollar decrease year after year and (b) we do not have to keep revisiting this political battle.

There has been some movement over in the Senate, with one Senator previously thought to be a hard no on indexing, Melisa Franzen, stating in a public forum that she is open to the idea.  That is a far cry from the line in the sand leadership had drawn, and that is a good sign. We hear there are several other Senators who feel the same way — that indexing is but one part of the final package and they are open to it as part of the solution that gets a deal done.

Senator Chris Eaton (DFL-40) Senate Conference Committee Chair  (651) 296-8869

Senator Chris Eaton (DFL-40) Senate Conference Committee Chair (651) 296-8869

From 1 to 5pm TODAY (Monday), in advance of this evening’s conference committee, SEIU, TakeAction, ISAIAH, NOC and others will be running a phonebank to reach voters and patch through their calls to Senators. If you can spare a couple hours this afternoon, email Kevin Hippert at for details about the phonebank.

But you don’t have to go there to call your Senator. It is especially important that conference committee members hear from their own constituents.  Call them and politely ask them to support you, their constituent, and not the official leadership position.  The conferees are important enough to getting this done that even if you do not live in those districts you can stand to give them a call.

Senator Hayden

Senator Jeff Hayden, Asst Majority Leader & Conference Committee Member; (651) 296-4261 sen.jeff.hayden@senate.mnm their constituents. If your State Senator is Chris Eaton (SD-40 Brooklyn Park & Center areas), Senator Jeff Hayden (SD 62 – south Minneapolis), or Senator David Tomassoni (SD-06 Itasica- St. Louis counties), PLEASE CALL THEM. Politely ask that they represent you, their constituent, and not the leadership position on a minimum wage indexed to inflation.

Others Senators should hear principally from their own constituents.  Go here to find your Senator, and then do not forget to update the people’s Whip Count at Bluestem Prairie.


If the conference committee does not finish its work tonight, there is a lot more fun to come.  DFL Senate District

Senator David Tomassoni, Conference Committee Member,(651) 296-8017;

Senator David Tomassoni, Conference Committee Member,(651) 296-8017;

Conventions are coming up, and groups like TakeAction, the AFL-CIO & SEIU and other organizations that do political work are planning to be at those in full force.  Visit the Raise the Wage (the broad coalition of faith, labor, and community groups) page for information on upcoming phonebanks across the state, and if you are a member of an organization supporting the campaign, call them to volunteer.  I know ISAIAH, TakeAction, and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, SEIU and the state AFL-CIO have a lot of activity planned, but I know there are a lot more organizations kicking it up as well.

Giving Thanks for the Voices of Workers Standing Up

28 Nov 20131128-114529.jpg

Yesterday, at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport, cabin cleaners, wheelchair agents, baggage handlers, and other service workers joined the millions across the country to say enough. They join fast food workers whose employers advise them to supplement their income with welfare, Walmart employees seeing their own stores holding food drives for employees impoverished by their Always Low Wages, and retail janitors who clean Target stores in Minnesota, tired of Target pushing the absurd lie that they have no control over the cleaning subcontractors they hire. We are all asking: shouldn’t a person working 40 or more hours a week expect at a minimum to not live in poverty?

20131128-085658.jpgAt MSP yesterday, workers sought not to make passengers traveling to see family feel guilty. In fact, quite the opposite. They know the average flyer is not traveling first class and is frustrated by airlines so brazenly putting profit over all else. Passengers paying ticket prices kept high by Delta’s virtual monopoly at MSP, paying ever-increasing fees for baggage, some of whom can no longer get free water on a flight, wonder when they’ll start charging us for the air we breathe. We should all also ask where all that money is going when the airlines insist on paying poverty wages to workers who keep airplanes clean and safe, who help disabled passengers get from plane to gate.

And when large, profitable corporations pay poverty wages with no benefits everyone is hurt. Just like that McDonald’s employee urged to go on welfare by his own employer, the companies paying poverty wages at MSP shirk their responsibilities onto the rest of us. At Local 26, the union these airport workers are organizing to join, we did a study of the impact of poverty wages at the MSP Airport.

The combination of low wages and no health coverage means that many of the families of airport workers must rely on taxpayer-funded safety net programs in order to survive. The report estimates that $1.7 million a year is spent on public benefits because these contractors pay poverty wages. The MAC prides itself on being able to raise enough revenue that it does not require general tax support, but in the case of these passenger service workers, taxpayers are subsidizing the contractors through things such as public assistance, medical care, food stamps, and low-income housing.

Today I am thankful for the courage of these workers joining their voices to the chorus of discontent in this country. They have had to fight for the simplest things, like being provided with more than one pair of hygienic gloves while cleaning airplanes. Think about that. Until recently, workers were forced to use the same pair of gloves to clean those often filthy airplane bathrooms when they cleaned the rest of the plane and replaced the pillows and blankets you wrap around your body. Their employers finally began providing more gloves, hoping perhaps that would quell their demand for decent wages and benefits. But they fight on.


During today’s holiday and tomorrow’s “Black Friday” shopping frenzy, let us all remember the workers who make holidays happen. Like you, they are being asked to do more and more for less and less. While their employers, like yours, become richer and richer, they live in poverty. And all of us, together, must fight on.

Local News Coverage of the MPS Protest

KSTP: Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Workers Protest for Higher Wages

KARE11: Hundreds of airport workers protest low wages on high travel day

MPR:MSP airport workers rally for higher wages

St Paul Union Advocate: At MSP Airport, workers use heavy travel day to rally for better wages

“Twin Cities Business” Interview

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The current issue if the Twin Cities Business is an “interview issue” where the magazine “goes one-on-one with 28 of the region’s key CEOs, public policy power players, thought leaders, and Fortune 500 execs. The result: an unprecedented collection of candid commentary on the state of Minnesota business and our broader society.” They asked me about immigration reform, SEIU, and the future of the labor movement more generally. Some excerpts below.

An academic-turned-labor-leader, Morillo represents 6,000 janitors and security officers in commercial real estate, and runs one of four SEIU locals in Minnesota. We examine the current long-term crisis in the union movement.

You and several members of Congress were recently arrested during a demonstration pushing for immigration reform legislation. What did you accomplish?

Every day, immigrants in this country are facing a crisis, and the only way we’re going to get legislation passed is for people in Washington to feel the crisis. So we have to escalate. There’s a common wisdom that, because Congress is so dysfunctional and because of the shutdown, immigration could never get done. I actually am quite hopeful. What we’re hearing from Republicans is that there will be a vote. That’s the reason of an escalation, to say, “Those of us who’ve been fighting this fight have certainly not given up.” And that’s how you make things move in Washington, by not giving up even when everyone else says something is dead.

In 2012, union members accounted for 14 percent of Minnesota workers, down from 16 percent in 2011. Have you bucked that trend?

Local 26 represents janitors and security officers in commercial office real estate. In our last contract negotiations we renegotiated for downtown security officers and added about 1,000 new members in suburban security. A year ago we had about 5,000 members, and we added 1,000 more.

How have you defied the trend?

Nationally, we are now less than 7 percent of the private industry work force, union members. When you compare that to a time in the century when 35 or 40 percent of private sector workers were in unions, that is a dramatic fall. We are in a crisis, and we think it’s extremely important for people in the labor movement to not only acknowledge we are in a crisis but act like we are in a crisis. We can’t do the same things we’ve been doing.

What we’ve done in Minnesota is to work differently with a broader set of community organizations—not unions—to put bigger demands on corporations like Target and U.S. Bank. Right now, there’s a worker center organizing retail janitors who are non-union . . . when we win that campaign, those members will be joint members of Local 26 and the worker center. What we all need to be doing in the labor movement is thinking beyond traditional collective bargaining as the only path to worker empowerment.

One of the mistakes that the union movement has made is that, as the economy changed dramatically, unions did not adapt. We’re organized along the exact same structure, the exact same kind of industrial unions and bureaucracies, everything that was established when the U.S. was an industrial power. And that is just illogical. We need to do what capitalism does, which is to adapt, to change.

Is Minnesota on the forefront of change, or are we lagging behind?

I think we’re on the forefront of that change.

[For the full interview and interviews with other Minnesota (mostly business leaders), see the full issue here.]

How have high-profile disputes—Twin Cities orchestras, American Crystal Sugar—affected the environment for organized labor in Minnesota? Is there a need to influence public perception?

I’d say yes, there definitely is. My first instinct is to try to look internally. What can we be doing differently? With, say, the orchestras, I think, “What could the union be doing differently to tell the story differently?”

What is incredibly important for us is that when we are in the newspaper for our contract negotiations, it has largely been stories of victories. It is very important for working people to have victories and to celebrate victories, and to fight on offense. That’s the key thing that our driving mission is, to not be in the paper for a defensive fight. Not that the Crystal Sugar workers or the orchestra musicians could avoid it, they were put into a defensive position, but what we try to look for is something that is or will become a victory and gives people a different sense of what the union is about. Instead of having unions seen as an obstacle to change or progress, to actually be the instigator of change and progress; on an issue like changing from night cleaning to day-shift cleaning, which saves lots of energy and money and could provide workers more family-friendly hours.

What are your largest challenges?

We work in a subcontracting industry, and we are an entirely private sector union. We also organize in very low-wage industries, and when you look at the economy, jobs that were shed during the recession were largely middle-income jobs, and the jobs that have come back in the recovery have been low-wage jobs. What we are trying to figure out is what the country as a whole needs to figure out—we cannot have millions of people working jobs that are 40 hours but have you living in abject poverty.

On Picking A Fight to Win One: My Houston Story

10 Nov houston2

Friday night I had a bit of a bucket list kind of night.  I got to tell a story on The Moth Mainstage when they were in town at the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul.  Ever since I first started listening to The Moth podcast, I have been telling John I wanted to be on and tell my story about Houston. The account below is not how I told it on stage, when you have about 10 minutes to tell a story to the live audience.  When people ask when I knew working for social justice is what I wanted to do — I often tell this story.

In 2006, Houston Janitors made the minimum wage, $5.15 an hour

In 2006, Houston Janitors made the minimum wage, $5.15 an hour

So I am sitting, legs crossed on the street, in the middle of a busy intersection in downtown Houston, arms linked with two other guys.  The three of us are looking up the nostrils of a horse.  The policeman on the horse’s back looks down at us and barks, “You are going to be trampled.”  And then he trampled us.

The three of us were the first of our group of about 45 dispersed off the intersection we had taken over in an act of civil disobedience. We had come from all over the country  – 11 of us from Minnesota – to support the janitors of Houston, who had been on strike for months, fighting for their first union contract. Their employers had left the bargaining table and were not budging, and so the strikers escalated the fight.  Ours was one in a series of acts of civil disobedience aimed at creating a crisis for the city of Houston.

The janitors of Houston lived in crisis every day.  In 2006 they were making $5.15 an hour – the federal minimum wage, and were limited to working four hours a night.  These janitors, like the janitors here and around the country, mostly work invisibly at night, after the office workers and executives have gone home.

The janitors taking home 20 dollars a night were mostly women and they were immigrants, and they clean the offices of some of the wealthiest corporations in the country, the world.  Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell Oil Company… Halliburton.

Everyone knew the only way the strike would end was if any of these corporations said to their cleaning companies, “end this strike.”  But no one was saying that.

So we were there to create a crisis, although I would not say that those of us who volunteered to go down there really understood what that meant.  I first got a clue that afternoon when we were briefed on the action, and the organizers leading this orientation talked like they were on Mission Impossible.  We would all arrive to downtown Houston in small groups of six or so people, from different points, and all converge at the same meeting place, a Burger King at that intersection, right across the skyscraper housing one of these big oil companies. They told us to not be surprised if our white vans were followed by police helicopters, and I thought police helicopters? What the hell did I just agree to?

I was scared out of my mind, and kicking myself for it. Stop being a wuss. But I couldn’t help it.  In the union, veterans of the Justice for Janitors movement all have stories of battle scars, stories that began: “I remember that time I got punched in the face by a cop.”  Before Houston I’d just listen quietly, as my experience prior to the union consisted of teaching history and anthropology to college students. I tried my best to look like I was in control on that day, but inside I was a quivering mess.

My little group made our way to the Burger King and it eventually filled up.  I recognized some of the people but others I didn’t.  I was looking around the room wondering who was in on it and who was actually a customer.  There was this one table full of elderly white people, drinking coffee and water.  That’s a scene I’ve seen before at a Burger King or McDonald’s. Clearly they’re not with us.

What was supposed to happen was at 4:15 someone would yell GO! and we’d all run out and take over the intersection. We’d sit, legs crossed, arms linked until an organizer came and put handcuffs on us.  What actually happened is that 4:15 came and went and we couldn’t do anything because there were police everywhere. On foot, on horseback.  There was a decoy rally of striking janitors a few blocks away but they weren’t being distracted.  4:30, 4:45, 5:00.  Now I had been scared all day but at that point I didn’t think the thing was going to happen and I was pissed.  I came to Houston to get arrested. If I have to hold up a convenience store, I am getting arrested.

But suddenly, the police did all go over to the decoy rally. So we hear it, GO! From that moment on I was focused, fear was gone. We got into position, linked arms – but before we could even form a full circle and before anyone could get handcuffs on us, the police were back. And me and the two guys from New York were staring up the nostrils of that horse.  After that no-minute warning, everything was a blur.  They moved us to one side of the street and the horses charged everyone else.  An older woman from New York had her wrist broken.

I had somehow ended up in an all-Puerto Rican group.  Me, the Puerto Rican from the island and these badass Puerto Rican janitors from New York, who were pissed. While everyone else was keeping up their chanting, Workers, United, Will Never Be defeated, my group was pissed, saying  What the fuck was that? This is not what I signed up for! That group of old white people in the BK, by the way, were on the street corner, chanting El Pueblo Unido, Jamás Será Vencido.

They eventually got us all into handcuffs and a huge armored bus arrived to take us away.  By the time they got us all on and blocked off the intersection, the decoy rally had arrived.  I looked out of the window through the iron grates.  It was a beautiful night.  The sky at dusk was full of color. Hundreds of Houston janitors and activists were, chanting. There were drums. It was lively.  I was overcome because, you see, something that no one said publicly, was that the reason we had come from all over the country to take part in this was because Houston janitors had risked a lot by going on strike.  But risking arrest, was too much because risking arrest for many could meaning risking deportation.

I had all kinds of thoughts running through my head.  I thought wow, I guess it’s just going to be this hard. We had been talking in the union about going into the South. Here we were and this city was spending so much money, so many resources were being put into keeping people in poverty.

I also thought, Oh my God, my mother can never find out about this.

Houston horsesMind you, in 2006 I was a grown ass man.  But this was not the future my parents had in mind for the son who, many years before, had sent to the US for college – to  Yale University – or as my tios and tias pronounced it, Jale – which, as I’m sure you know, is a factory.  A factory that produces elites. My parents had worked hard to get themselves out of poverty.  Unlike Latin Americans crossing the border, and by an accident of history, we Puerto Ricans are born American citizens. At 21, my dad found one of the only ways out of that poverty – he joined the US Army.  He became a career serviceman.  He did two tours of duty of frontline infantry in Vietnam and almost a third – until a Congresssional investigation of his battalion uncovered that black and Latino soldiers were getting third orders to Vietnam while many white soldiers hadn’t yet gone once.

I was a good kid, a studious kid when I left to Yale. After I graduated I had a long, too long, career as a graduate student working to become a professor, perhaps at some other factory for producing elites. That’s what brought me to Minnesota in 2000 to teach at an elite college.  But two years later, the tragic and accidental death of a U.S. senator, Paul Wellstone, made me an accidental activist and confirmed for me that I had to leave academia and do something. 

I worked in politics, began working for the union in 2004 and by June of that year I was asked if I would consider leading this union of immigrant janitors and security officers and I thought are you crazy? I was teaching history, like a year ago. And by March 2005 I was elected by the board of this local to become is president and by that fall of 2006 I was leading negotiations for 4,000 janitors. A group of 11 of us took a break from negotiations to go down to Houston to do support work for a strike that did not look like it was coming to an end any time soon.

houston2And that’s how I landed in Houston city jail. By the time we were processed and got through the gauntlet of fingerprints, mug shots, removing your shoe laces, handing over my belt – I didn’t get into the holding cell until about 2 am – and I was the first of “the protestors” that made it through.  I walk into this cell and I think, oh fuck I’m going to die here. Because of course I assumed that all these guys had just come from knife fights or shootouts.  If you ever find yourself in jail in Houston – or frankly almost anywhere else – the first thing you notice at everyone in there is black or brown.  The only white people in this packed cell were protestors.  Except late at night there was a prostitution bust an a few white johns came in.  And a few DUIs a little later than that.

Soon after I got through that gauntlet this young black guy comes in.  One of the other jail mates started calling him Sideshow Bob, the Simpsons character, because he had crazy hair – but not to his face because he also had a crazy look to him.  As soon as he got in he was restless, screaming for guards. They ignored him so he took a plastic bag from the garbage can and put it over his head and yelled “I will kill myself.” And all of the guard rushed in. There was a lot of shouting at him and one of them got the bag away from him through the bars. The guards all leave, except one of them stays behind.  He was this short, muscled up, and very young white guy who I came to nickname Abu Ghraib because he was constantly telling us he was a badass who served in Iraq.  He starts yelling at Bob. “You think I’m scared of you? You think I’m scared of you? I did two tours in Iraq as a grunt. I KILL PEOPLE.”

To which Bob replies.  “I kill people too.  I’m in jail.”

Jailmates 1, Abu Ghraib Zero.

I soon realized something else about our jailmates.  Almost all of them seemed to have been through this before.  They educated me and the other protestors on what would happen.  When we’d get to talk to a lawyer, how the bond is posted.  They were not all in knife or gun fights.  It was astounding how insignificant some of the charges seemed.  A seventeen year old latino kid who looked much younger was in because he had been trespassed by the high school he had dropped out of. When he drove back there to pick up his sister who was still a student there, was trespassed and arrested. Others were in because they were walking without ID and you can be held for 48 hours without being charged.

Now we had been arrested Thursday evening and we thought we’d be out by morning.  But as I said the Houston police were pissed and so was the District Attorney.  Talking to the lawyers I learned that he had originally set bail for us at $888,888.  Each.  The Crazy Eights Bail.  For blocking traffic. This same DA had set bail for a guy who had killed his own mother at 35k. So we ended up staying longer than overnight.

So by Friday night, after 24 hours already, we were panicking because, as our jail mentors warned us, “if you don’t get out by Friday at 5, you’re not getting out until Monday morning.

But late that night, the lawyers finally figured things out, got the bail reduced and we were told they’d start processing our releases.houston3

That didn’t start until 5am.  My name was called in the first group.  Now when you’re in jail, they do body counts a lot.  In the middle of the night.  They wake everyone up off the concrete floors, have you line up and you count off as they call your name.  And the guards always pronounced by name wrong.  So when they called me that morning I hear “JAY-VIER” and I thanked God. One of the Minnesota guys I’d come with corrected the guard HA-VIER and I thought shut the fuck up. Jay-vier is out of here.

When we got out we learned how big of a deal our arrests had become.  There was a candlelight vigil outside the jail.  It led the news on every station because the police not only barricaded our intersection but blocked off several more so thousands of people were backed up in traffic and couldn’t get home for hours.

The embarrassment had finally caused the corporate elites of Houston to get together and tell their cleaning contractors, “End this strike.” They had agreed to come back to the table. Our group from Minnesota made it back Sunday night and on my way to work Monday morning I got the news that the Houston janitors and won their first union contract with guaranteed wage increases and, for the first time, health care coverage.

This line of work is sometimes very hard.  I often ask myself, “why do we have to work so hard for so little?”  But I also think back to that night – sitting handcuffed on that bus – and think about janitors who made their invisible work visible. And I think of those who disappear, invisible into our jails and prisons.  And those tall skyscrapers, how it all exists right by each other.  And I think, “I guess it’s just going to be that hard.”

And I remember something Paul Wellstone used to say: “Sometimes you have to pick a fight to win a fight.”


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