Houston Janitors Stage Traffic Jam

Striking janitors staged a sit-in that blocked traffic in one of Houston's busiest intersections Thursday, the 11th day of a campaign aimed at increasing wages and adding insurance benefits.

About 150 members of the Service Employees International Union, wearing bright purple shirts and carrying picket signs, disrupted traffic in Houston's upscale Galleria shopping district for about 90 minutes. A dozen community activists who joined the protest chained themselves to metal garbage cans and sat in the middle of the street. They were arrested and charged with obstructing a pathway, a misdemeanor.

More than 1,700 janitors have been on strike since Oct. 23, when talks broke down with several of the city's major commercial cleaning companies. The strike has targeted an estimated 58 buildings in the city's downtown and shopping district. Workers want a pay increase to $8.50 an hour from the current average of $5.30, plus more guaranteed hours of work and medical insurance.

The demonstration began just after 1:30 p.m., when dozens of protesters linked arms and formed a human chain to stop cars from passing through the intersection. The activists sat in a circle under a gleaming silver street sign labeled Post Oak Boulevard and Westheimer Road.

Traffic was backed up for blocks in all four directions, as protesters waved picket signs, beat drums and chanted upbeat slogans of "Si se puede" (Yes, we can) and "Aqui estamos, no nos vamos" (Here we are, and we're not leaving).

Symbols of the strikers' occupation also abounded. Overstuffed plastic trash bags were tossed on the street around the protesters, and some workers waved brooms and mops.

The rally rankled many drivers trapped in traffic, including a few who tried to bulldoze their way through the demonstrators. However, other drivers shrugged their shoulders at the unexpected delay and said they supported the strikers' cause.

The first of more than a dozen Houston police units arrived about 20 minutes after the rally started. They began making arrests 45 minutes later, after first issuing three warnings.