Sept. 2, 2002, 12:07AM

Early picnic works out for AFL-CIO Union's Sunday event gives holiday to workers, a forum to politicians


Traditionally, union members in the Houston area have spent their Labor Day holiday together, picnicking and listening to speeches by pro-worker politicians. But this year they decided they wanted the day off -- not just from work but from everything else. So the annual to-do sponsored by the Harris County AFL-CIO Council was Sunday. More than 200 people showed up at Campbell Hall at the Pasadena Convention Center to eat hot dogs, taste barbecue and listen to political candidates. "Labor Day is supposed to be the day we rest," said Harris County AFL-CIO President Dale Wortham. "A lot of the members said they would like to just stay home and watch TV Monday, so we did it (Sunday)." The event, established in 1995, is open to everyone, but usually only Democratic candidates are involved. That party's candidates were the only ones invited to speak. Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, a Republican running for U.S. Senate, decided to show up anyway. "We're just here visiting some folks and looking for some votes," Cornyn said after he was grilled by two picnickers about his stance on public health care and the definition of a liberal. Cornyn said he has support from Teamsters, pilot associations and the seafarers union. He walked through the hall plastered with signs such as "No more business as usual," "Fast track is the wrong track," and "Today's Union. Working together for workers' rights." While most didn't mind Cornyn's appearance, Lee Medley, a pipefitter and union member, said he was appalled. "I have no clue why he's here," Medley said. "I think it's a travesty the man's here. I mean this is open to everybody, but ... " Cornyn left before his opponent Ron Kirk arrived. Kirk was part of the program and spoke to the crowd along with gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez, lieutenant governor candidate John Sharp, attorney general candidate Kirk Watson, and Sylvia Garcia, who is running for Harris County commissioner, Precinct 2. Kirk couldn't resist taking a dig at Cornyn. "At the end of the day, what you do speaks louder than what you say," Kirk said. "It's going to take more than a drive through or a walk through at a Labor Day picnic." Other candidates included Marty Akins, running for comptroller, Linda Yanez, who is seeking a seat on the Texas Supreme Court, and U.S. representative candidates Chris Bell and Gene Green. The crowd also cheered for a former Enron employee and a former WorldCom employee. "We came out to support the union and have a good time," said Christina Shaffer, who has attended the function every year with her husband, Terry, and mother-in-law, Thelma. "We come out with the whole family," Shaffer said. "We just have fun every year."


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  Sept. 1, 2002, 11:48PM

Enron collapse boost for labor Unions aid laid-off yuppies


Shortly after Enron Corp.'s financial meltdown turned many millionaires into paupers, a group of new folks started showing up to protest. These reformers didn't look like the traders or techies with their Palm Pilots and Porsches. They were union leaders more likely to be wearing big belt buckles and driving American-made pickup trucks. Corporate accountability and severance pay for laid-off yuppies are new issues for labor. While unions have been moving in this direction for a few years, their efforts gained widespread attention with the collapse of Enron, which made boardroom corruption one of the biggest issues around. The AFL-CIO's most direct connection was its push for better severance packages for laid-off Enron workers. For decades, labor union leaders have focused on negotiating contracts and settling grievances for their members. But over the past few months, aided by a string of corporate meltdowns, the labor movement seems reinvigorated. Labor leaders are filing shareholder proposals on auditor independence and executive severance arrangements, lobbying Congress aggressively on pension reform and fighting companies that try to flee offshore to escape U.S. taxes. And they're meeting with something that the labor movement hasn't seen in a while: success. The fall of Enron put Houston at the center of this push. Shortly after the December bankruptcy filing -- which led to mass layoffs and huge losses in employee retirement savings accounts -- the Harris County AFL-CIO's community service referral program started getting calls from ex-Enron employees looking for help. Unions jumped at this chance. "I thought it was odd," recalled Debbie Perrotta, a former administrative assistant to an Enron executive, and also one of the early Enron activists. The union didn't even represent any workers at Enron's headquarters in Houston, so "Why would they get involved?" Perrotta wondered. Ultimately, the legal and organizing aid provided by the unions helped Enron employees win about three times more severance than they were initially offered. Now the AFL-CIO is hoping to do the same for laid-off workers from WorldCom, which has also filed for bankruptcy protection. Labor representatives are using many of the skills they've learned running "corporate campaigns," which attacked companies on matters such as noncompliance with environmental and labor laws. These media-savvy tactics are a way to sell the idea of union membership to a new group -- white-collar, well-paid workers who are, traditionally, nonunion. Unions are trying to repackage themselves so they're seen as a positive force -- the role of do-gooder, said John L. Collins, an employment lawyer who specializes in labor/management disputes at Seyfarth Shaw in Houston. Sales, by way of an organizing campaign, will come later. Finding new pools of members has long been a life-and-death issue for unions, who now represent about 13 percent of the work force. The traditional membership base of unions has eroded -- manufacturers alone cut 900,000 jobs during the past year -- so unions have to organize new sectors, said Richard Shaw, secretary treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO. While the percentage is slowly inching up -- unions had a net gain of 400,000 members this year compared with the previous year -- the organizations would have to add an extra 1 million people each year to make up for the many factories that have shut down. The push to attract the well-paid worker is similar to labor's concerted effort, which began about five years ago, to represent the rights of immigrant workers. That campaign was a sharp departure from the past when unions used to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service to report immigrants because of a widespread feeling they were taking "union" jobs. Work on issues such as establishing permanent day-labor sites has led to some organizing victories. Union leaders hope to make similar gains among white-collar employees. "Unions can go in and look like they're wearing the white hat through a wage and hour lawsuit," said John Skonberg, an employment lawyer who represents management with Littler Mendelson in San Francisco. "They hope the employees will be grateful and vote for them, and for the employer to capitulate." In the case of one Enron worker, the message got through. Perrotta said that before the meltdown, if anyone would have asked if she'd like to join a union, "I would have said, `What for? Enron was giving us everything.' " But after the money from Enron ended, union officials stepped in. "If it wasn't for the AFL-CIO stepping in and helping us, we would have never been able to get a motion in bankruptcy court for severance," said Perrotta. In addition to providing a lawyer, the AFL-CIO e-mailed 13 million members and asked them to write and call the creditors committee and Enron officials for the additional severance, she said. Union members also fanned out across the country to pressure the other big creditors to support the former employees. Perrotta said the union also put her in front of congressional leaders and sponsored bus trips around the country so she and other ex-Enron employees could tell their stories. Perrotta has enjoyed her new career lobbying for Enron severance benefits so much that she recently took an organizing job with the Texas Federation of Teachers. The AFL-CIO, whose union-sponsored pension funds were responsible for one-third of all shareholder proposals filed last year, also helped fight Stanley Works' proposal to move its incorporation to Bermuda to escape taxes. Union leaders held rallies in front of the company's headquarters in Connecticut as well as near Fidelity Investments in Boston, which is Stanley Works' largest shareholder. The company, which also faced opposition from the attorney general of Connecticut, ended up withdrawing its proposal to move to Bermuda. A less intense push by labor to block Houston-based Nabors Industries' move to Bermuda failed to slow its relocation to the tax haven. Union leaders are upbeat and feeling more like important players these days. And some, like Shaw, figure it's only a matter of time before workers from other companies make inquiries. "What I'm waiting for is that call from someone at Dynegy: `Mr. Shaw, I want a union. How do I get one?' " "Eventually that call is going to come."


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  Sept. 1, 2002, 7:20PM

Want corporate watchdogs? Let workers unionize


IN today, Labor Day, Americans' attention is still riveted on the Enron-Imclone-WorldCom corporate crime wave. With horror and anger, we've watched executives plundering their own businesses, cooking the books, sending stock prices into free-fall and endangering employees' jobs, health coverage and pension benefits. In spite of President Bush's assurances that only a few wrongdoers are to blame, it's clear that the problem goes deeper. For two decades, there's been a dismantling of the rules that protect investors, employees and consumers, and a defanging of the agencies that enforce these regulations and bring lawbreakers to justice. At long last, Congress and the country are addressing irresponsible business behavior, from falsifying their accounting to seeking overseas tax havens. But one category of wrongdoing remains largely unnoticed: the interference of employers with the freedom of workers to form and join unions and win a voice on their jobs -- and that's an area to which we should look especially this Labor Day. In our economic system, a vigilant government and aggressive unions are the forces we count on to blow the whistle on corporate excesses, but in most of the corporations that have gone belly-up, the workers weren't unionized, and the results have been tragic. While understandably overshadowed by other scandals, the systematic violation of Americans' freedom of association at work was the subject of a recent hearing by the Senate Health, Labor and Pensions Committee, chaired by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. The testimony revealed that when working Americans join together to make their jobs better, they routinely run the risk of harassment, firings and threats of factory or office closings. Among other witnesses, the senators heard from Mario Vidales, a casino worker and union supporter in Las Vegas, who was beaten and left for dead by baseball-bat-wielding thugs. A former supervisor at a pork-producing plant, Sherri Bufkin, recalled how higher-ups forced her to threaten workers that, if they formed a union, they would lose their jobs and homes. And, explaining how employers can learn to respect their employees and the law, nurse Nancy Schweikhard told how her hospital first threatened employees who were trying to organize but later recognized their union and reached agreement on improving working conditions and patient care. These individual stories were confirmed by facts and figures submitted to the Senate Committee. All in all, in 1998, the last year for which complete statistics are available, more than 23,000 workers were illegally fired for supporting unions, according to a study by the watchdog group Human Rights Watch. Meanwhile, according to research by Cornell University's Dr. Kate Bronfenbrenner, some 90 percent of employers use other tactics to intimidate or harass employees who organize, from conducting closed-door meetings with employees to threatening to close down their operations. These practices violate the letter or the spirit of the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees employees' rights to "form or assist labor organizations" without attempts by employers to "interfere with, restrain or coerce" them. Just as with laws that prohibit fanciful accounting, the laws protecting employees' rights to join together have fallen victim to what Human Rights Watch calls "a culture of near impunity" in corporate America. Corporate conservatives in Congress and the Bush administration have stripped the National Labor Relations Board of funding and authority, just as they have weakened the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and agencies that are supposed to protect employees, investors and consumers. The cops have been taken off their beats, and the result is that corporate crime does pay, from the workplace to the marketplace. This situation is tragic not only for employees who want a voice at work but also for all Americans who want a free-market economy tempered by common sense and common decency. Public opinion surveys show that some 30 million Americans without union representation would join an employee organization if only they had the opportunity. The record shows that employees who join together in unions are more likely to have "defined-benefit" pension plans they can count on (as did members of the Sheet Metal Workers union at Enron), and have the confidence to blow the whistle on wrongdoing in their workplaces. Now that the nation is beginning to restore the rule of law in corporate America, let's take that reform one step further and create thousands of new watchdogs by restoring the rights of workers to join together to improve their careers and their companies. Sweeney, based in Washington, D.C., is president of the AFL-CIO.


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle