Women at Houston Port Win a Round in Potty Wars
On the door it says “Women’s Room.” The lock is broken on the inside, so you walk in to a darkly painted, dimly lit room. The broken toilet seat is up and the bowl is full of urine from the last visitor who obviously was male. Rolls of toilet paper sit on the floor next to it. One wall is smeared with ancient dried feces, again today there is no soap, and the one cold water spigot drips in a grimy sink with old soap scum covering the wall next to it. There are no paper towels in the long-broken holder. The return vents in the ceiling are covered with years of grime. The ceiling tiles are pushed over and a steady drip from the air conditioning overflow makes the floor wet in front of the commode. The whole room reeks and is a bacterial nightmare.
What makes these conditions worse is the struggle just getting to a bathroom at all. Sometimes it takes a hike down a 60-foot gangway from a ship as long as a football field. Houston summers often get up to 100 or more degrees, and standing on steel or concrete makes it even hotter.
Despite this, many of us working the ships don’t drink enough liquids because we know what bathrooms are available to us, and if we ask one of the men to cover for us, it will create yet another problem. Many of us try to hold it until our first break, which can mean five hours or more. Not every woman can endure these hardships working side by side with the men, but the ships are where the money is. We have daily reminders we are clearly working in a man’s world.
These are just some of the conditions the 130 women or so out of 2,000 Longshoremen (ILA) working shipside live with every day at the Port of Houston.
Many of us have endured these conditions or worse for over three decades, constantly jousting with our ILA officials and management over bathrooms—until just this summer, an aggressive campaign was launched and women finally benefited from a little outside help, courtesy of Houston’s new mayor, Annise Parker.
“BOYS WILL BE BOYS”
There aren’t enough bathrooms to go around on the port, leading men to use the women’s room—and leading us to demand locks not just for cleanliness’ sake. It seems some guys just get a kick out of occupying the woman’s room, shutting you out or even walking in on you. When you complain to the Port Police the response seems to be “boys will be boys.” So the problem continues.
Among the older rank and file, most are respectful of women and it clearly bothers them that this is even an issue. I found the most support, however, in the Longshore Workers Coalition, a reform group inside the ILA. The Women’s Vision Group allowed us to discuss what happens in ports across the country and we discovered that many of us face the same issues. I drew strength from the women from other ports who shared similar difficulty in getting women’s matters addressed within the ILA.
Local union officials, as well as district reps, have known for years the problems these bathrooms have generated. For decades we have heard they are working on it but that our complaints could not come at a worse time (for whom, we wonder?). So we drafted memos to higher union leadership and pushed port supervisors to take the bathrooms seriously.
I wrote to Mayor Parker, who has not shied away from other women’s issues, such as the discrimination in our Fire Department that drew national media attention shortly after she took office in January. The immediate, head-on way she handled the matter was refreshing and I felt she might take an interest in the conditions at our taxpayer-subsidized port.
She quickly wrote back, expressing her sympathy with the difficulties we faced. She indicated she was forwarding it on to the Port of Houston Authority. Within a few weeks, a top official in the port called, willing to talk. He sat down to a one-on-one meeting anxious to show off drawings of the plans for new bathrooms in future development. But when I showed him recent pictures of the facilities under his current control, he recognized that cleanliness was not something we could wait for any longer.
Almost immediately they started painting walls and floors in many of the bathrooms. We have soap and hand dryers now. We hear they are going to put locks on the doors. We are grateful for these first steps and anxiously wait for what will happen next. Our goal is a clean, safe bathroom with antibacterial soap, feminine hygiene products, and hot water, and we’re determined that it won’t take the mayor’s prodding every step of the way to make it happen.