Tag Archives: SEIU

On Picking A Fight to Win One: My Houston Story

10 Nov

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.”

Lessons From Today’s Victory for Immigrant Rights

15 Jun

Today’s announcement by the Obama Administration of a “deferred action process” for young immigrants is a huge deal.  It’s just a first step in fixing a horribly unjust and illogical immigration system, but it is a big one.  First, what it is and what it isn’t, and then some preliminary thoughts on lessons to be learned from this victory and the politics of immigration in this election year (Preview: My prediction is that this is a very bad day for Marco Rubio).

What this means, what it doesn’t

This is not a full-scale administrative implementation of the Dream Act, legislation with broad bipartisan support that has nonetheless never been able to overcome filibusters by a small minority of anti-immigrant Senators. Today’s actions will not put anyone on a path to citizenship. Only legislation can accomplish that.

What this does do is provide immediate relief for persons in deportation proceedings who meet the following criteria:

  1. Came to the United States under the age of sixteen;

    The Obama Administration’s announcement came just a day after this Time Magazine cover story on Dream Activists was released.

  2. Have continuously resided in the United States for a least five years preceding the date of this memorandum and are present in the United States on the date of this memorandum;
  3. Are currently in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained a general education development certificate, or are honorably discharged veterans of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States;
  4. Have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety;
  5. Are not above the age of thirty.

This goes one important step further than the 2011 announcement that gave new guidance for prosecutorial discretion in deportation cases.  Within sixty days, the Department of Homeland Security will establish a process for eligible persons to make affirmative requests for relief – meaning that people aren’t going to have to get “caught” by ICE in order to begin adjusting their status.  This is an enormous step forward.

Lessons Learned, One: Young activists were right, DC and other establishment immigrant rights advocates were wrong

When President Obama rode a tidal wave of Hope into office, too many institutional progressives like my union, SEIU, accepted the logic of an administration that was telling us, “first we’ll do healthcare – then we’ll get to labor law reform, immigration reform, etc.”  Although I always thought it was overly ambitious, I look back now on plans we at SEIU had that assumed that all three would be passed in the first one hundred days of the administration and am not sure whether I should be stifling laughs or tears.

On immigrant rights, an entire infrastructure was set up, funded largely by foundations, to move federal immigration reform.  There were field offices, staff, phone banks set up – you name it.  What was set up, however, was a massive lobbying operation – not a movement-building infrastructure to create political pressure to demand reform.

While immigrant rights organizations in DC lobbied the administration, we all ultimately followed a path of keeping fairly quiet “until healthcare got done.”  And when that debate blew up far beyond what anyone imagined after the Tea Party August of 2009, we never recovered.

There was one exception to this rule – Dream Activists.  They never let up on direct action as a tactic, staging sit-ins in the offices of Congress people, “coming out” as undocumented and unafraid, taking part of in “Trail of Dreams” walk from Florida to Washington DC to focus attention on their fight.

I admit, that when young activists I cared about talked about “coming out,” I played the part of the concerned Dad wary of risk –  “Ay, mijo, no hagas eso. Eso es peligroso.”  Luckily I have no children of my own to face my shame directly, but to every Dreamer I must say: I’m sorry. You were right. I was wrong. You were bold.  And you were right.

In 2010, I took a leave of absence from my union to lead SEIU’s national immigration campaign.  I took part in meetings with White House officials, leaders of other organizations at precisely the time that Jan Brewer’s Arizona brought immigration back to the forefront of the national consciousness.  One thing I can tell you for certain – in all of the tables I saw, at least, young people – the Dream Activists—were not present.  This was eventually remedied once more people realized what the Dreamers knew: their activism was working, our patience was not.

While Dreamers were shushed by those of us who “knew better,” one thing is undeniable: In the past few years, youth activism has made the Dream Act the only piece of positive immigration legislation that has been voted on in DC in recent years. Their success, however, has not been limited to moving the administration in positive ways.  While the Dream Act legislation has always had bipartisan support, this year the Dream Act has become a wedge issue in the Republican Party.  Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, himself once opposed to the Dream Act in any form, has talked about introducing his own watered down version of the Dream Act – although he has yet to put pen to paper (and today’s announcement makes his Dream Act Lite superfluous (more on that later).

Lessons Learned, Two: Progressive Politics Benefits from a Left Flank

While the Republican Party seems to have an insatiable appetite for feeding its increasingly radical base, there seems to be a very different tendency in the Democratic Party.  When Democrats are in power, the tendency seems to be to govern in the way described above. We’re told to be patient, be quiet, and  everything will come in time. And too many of us listen.

What the Dreamers did through their confrontational style was to force their issue to be constantly on the front burner.  Yes, they made people uncomfortable. But they understood that their role as activists was different than the role of a policymaker or a DC lobbyist. The activist creates the cultural space for change to happen.  The policymaker follows, does not lead.

Lessons Learned, Three: We Need Victories, Even Small Ones, Even “First Steps”

In the first years of the Administration, the objection I and others had to moving the Dream Act independently of full, comprehensive reform stemmed from a belief that if we were going to have to take on an epic cultural battle, we might as well not settle on anything less than a path to citizenship for all immigrants living in the shadows. With opposition in the Republican Party to any amount of immigration reform being so vicious, I believed that a legislative victory would require an epic, cultural battle – one we have lost time and time again in recent years.

When talking today to two Dream Activists still trying to assimilate the good news, I was reminded of a lesson I should have never forgotten: the movement needs victories, even partial ones, even “first steps.”

So many immigrants come to this country with one thought on their mind: “I want my children’s lives to be better than mine.”  Today’s announcement, while providing relief only to those children, it breathes renewed hope into the lives of their elders.

The Politics of Today’s Announcement:

I’ve been asked by reporters today if today’s announcement was “just political,” a charge already made by the Romney campaign.

My first, cynical reaction is: So what if it is?  This is what politics is about, why we have elections every four years.  People make a case for change and eventually someone listens. Even if they’re only listening out of political expedience, if the change is good – who cares?

The Administration would say that this is a logical next step to a process they have tried to follow to right the path of immigration enforcement priorities.  Just as we don’t want our local police to prioritize the prosecution of children stealing gum from a corner store over apprehending and jailing murderers, we need an immigration system that targets real criminals, not law-abiding people earning a living – or in this case, children brought to this country who have led a productive life.  While this is literally true, it is also inescapable that the announcement today will be read in the context of an election cycle where Latinos (who overwhelmingly support the Dream Act and Comprehensive Immigration Reform) will play a key role.

My Prediction: Today’s Announcement was Bad News for Marco Rubio

While Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post seems to think today’s announcement boosts Senator Rubio’s chances of becoming Mitt Romney’s running mate, I’ll go out on a limb here and predict the opposite.

Today the Administration effectively implemented Senator Rubio’s “Dream Act Lite” idea through administrative action.  Remember, his “proposal” is really just an “idea” as he has not seen fit to actually write a bill.  He has said the essential difference between the bipartisan-crafted Dream Act and his bill is that the young people covered would receive work visas but not a path to citizenship.

One reason Senator Rubio might not have yet put pen to paper: even in his Day Dreams he knows that a watered down version won’t survive Republican opposition to any immigration reform.   Mr. Romney hasn’t even been willing to say if he supported the Senator’s idea, saying only that he had to “study the issue.” And, today, when Univisión, Telemundo, and Latino households across the country will be discussing, debating, and celebrating the President’s policy move – the Romney campaign called it “illegal.”

Mr. Romney is in quite a bind.  He needs Latinos, but he also has to placate the likes of vicious immigrant haters like Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Kris Kobach.

As the anti-immigrant base starts to get its hackles up about Romney caving on immigration, I predict, Senator Rubio’s prospects will decline.  Already, the GOP is having a tough time coming up with a consistent, coherent response to the announcement.

In sum, as far as VP picks go, I say: Get in line, “Incredibly Boring White Guys,” your day has come!