Unionizing the Southwest means recruiting en Espanol
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The Religious Left got some play today in the New York Times' coverage of a unionizing campaign that targeted Latino janitors in Houston. Through its "Justice for Janitors" campaign, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has gotten more than 5,000 Houston janitors to sign on. The success was partly attributed to a widespread Spanish-language recruitment effort, and a little help from religious leaders:
The union announced its campaign last April, but two years earlier, it sent a community liaison to Houston who helped line up backing from the city's mayor, several congressmen and dozens of clergymen, including the Roman Catholic archbishop, Joseph A. Fiorenza. The archbishop even celebrated a special Mass for janitors in August and spoke at the union's kickoff rally, telling the janitors that God was unhappy that they earned so little and did not have health coverage.
"They work for the same companies that are in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, and their counterparts there are getting much higher salaries," Archbishop Fiorenza said in an interview. "It's just basic justice and fairness that the wages should be increased here."
Other religious figures have voiced their support for the Janitors for Justice campaign, including Rev. William G. Sinkford, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The campaign marks two major successes for the unions' relationship with Latinos. First, the support of the Catholic clergy is a sure-fire way to reach Latin American immigrants who work in the service industry. And second, the inroads made into the Southwest, typically a staunchly anti-union region, mean that more Latinos will become familiar with unions and workers' rights in general. As a native Texan, I can attest to the lack of information and public understanding about unionization that is pervasive in the Southwest.
By getting a majority of Houston's janitors to join the union, the SEIU has certainly cracked a hard nut. This was put best by Mick Arran, a blogger at the Resistance:
In the last five years, Texas has become a national joke, the home of cranks, crackpots, and criminals. It has given us borderline psychopaths like Tom DeLay, hatemongers like John Cornyn, and the hopeless, clueless fruitcakes of the Texas Republican Party. It is homophobic, xenophobic, mindlessly jingoist, and so far off the mainstream that it makes Franco's Spain look sensible by comparison. As a state, it is closer to organized fascism than any other in the Union -- Mississippi looks democratic next to it. Truly, if the SEIU can organize here, it can organize anywhere.
Maria Luisa Tucker is a staff writer at AlterNet and associate editor of the Columbia Journal of American Studies.