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Houston Chronicle: Union protesters disrupt Shell chief’s speech

EXTRACT: “…two union protesters posing as luncheon guests disrupted a speech by Shell Oil Co.’s president. The protesters, both with the Service Employees International Union, jumped up during John Hofmeister’s speech and lectured him on the low wages janitors are paid to clean Shell’s office buildings.”

THE ARTICLE

Headline: Striking janitors rally at Houston police headquarters
By L.M. SIXEL and ANNE MARIE KILDAY
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

Hundreds of members of “Justice for Janitors” rallied in front of Houston police headquarters tonight.

They gathered to protest the arrest of a striking janitor earlier in the day.

Sgt. G.  Batcheler said the protest began at about 8 p.m., although striking janitors had been protesting in different locations in downtown since earlier this morning.

“It has been peaceful. We’ve not been having any problems,” Batcheler said.

He estimated that approximately 500 janitors involved in the strike gathered in front of the building at 1200 Travis.

Although patrol cars were circling the block and three school buses were parked in the 1100 block of Travis,  Batcheler said the noisy protesters remained calm.

Another group of janitors held a similar protest in front of the southeast substation where two janitors who had been arrested earlier were being held in city jail.

Men, women, and young children gathered and chanted “Up with the protest” and “Arriba, revolution.”

Houston police mounted officers also were called in to ensure that the striking workers stayed on the sidewalk downtown.

Many in the crowd who were drinking bottled water and eating snacks neatly deposited empty containers in a box brought in by the striking janitorial workers.

“Their active efforts to clean up after themselves may have been a result of incidents earlier in the week where a few janitors dumped trash into some buildings downtown,” Batcheler said.

“Those incidents are still under investigation by Houston police because they are considered illegal dumping, a class B misdemeanor.”

Earlier today, two union protesters posing as luncheon guests disrupted a speech by Shell Oil Co.’s president. The protesters, both with the Service Employees International Union, jumped up during John Hofmeister’s speech and lectured him on the low wages janitors are paid to clean Shell’s office buildings.

Hofmeister gave the speech after accepting the 2006 International Executive of the Year Award from the Greater Houston Partnership and Kiwanis International.

“What are you doing about the janitors who clean your buildings for $5.15 an hour?” Peter Hanrahan, president of SEIU Local 3 of Cleveland, shouted. “You spend more money on lunch than they earn all year.”

Many in the audience of 330 that included members of Houston’s consular corps groaned and shouted back, “No, No,” as Hanrahan hustled out of the room.

A few minutes later, another protester, Joseph McLaughlin, lead researcher for SEIU Local 5 in Houston, was also quickly removed when he shouted: “Can you have some respect for the janitors who clean your buildings?”

Neither protester was arrested.

SEIU represents 5,300 janitors, many of whom are striking the city’s five biggest cleaning companies over wages and a lack of health benefits.

After the first outbreak, Hofmeister said, “Houston has to solve” this issue and encouraged those on both sides of the strike to get together and talk.

Jeff Moseley, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, said after the speech that the union’s efforts may be misguided.

“It would be well for SEIU to realize who their friends are before they exercise their right to free speech,” said Moseley. “No leader is more understanding in the business community than John Hofmeister. … There are people in the business community who are willing to listen, willing to hear and willing to assist but they’re less likely when they see things like this.”

But Lynda Tran, a spokeswoman for SEIU, had a different opinion of the business community’s response to the strike.

“To date, the business and the real estate community in particular have failed to step up and take responsibility to the fact janitors are continuing to live in poverty without health care,” Tran said. “They will continue to hear from janitors and janitors’ supporters who will urge them to step in and settle the strike.”

In a statement issued later in the day, Shell said it hopes the issues between the janitorial service companies and the union will be resolved as soon as possible through the normal collective bargaining process.

However, Shell pointed out that it’s not involved in the bargaining process and is not a party to any eventual agreement.

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