Sept. 23, 2002, 11:32PM

Machinists union grapples with dealers over wages


Time and money have no relationship if you work as a mechanic for an auto dealer. Sometimes you can spend 40 hours at the shop, but you're paid for only 20. Other times you can spend 40 hours but get paid for 100. Frustrated, some automotive mechanics feel they are being cheated and have asked the Machinists union to represent them and help negotiate a fairer wage structure and better benefits. And the union is listening. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers is urging mechanics to unionize at nine dealerships in Houston, including Mike Calvert Toyota, Baytown Ford, Superior Lincoln Mercury and Sterling McCall Lexus, as part of a nationwide drive to expand its membership. The union represents more than 40,000 mechanics, or about 5 percent of the industry. Dealership mechanics typically are paid an hourly wage for each job. Each job is expected to be done in a predetermined amount of time, usually the industry standard. When work is slow, they can put in only two to fours a day but aren't paid for the extra hours they are required to wait at the dealership. For example, if the repair manual says a certain repair is a four-hour job, but it actually only takes two hours, the mechanic is paid his hourly wage of $16 to $21 for the full four hours. Most mechanics at Mike Calvert Toyota average 40 to 50 hours of repair work a week, said Robert Bekken, an employment lawyer with Fisher & Phillips in Irvine, Calif. It would be unusual for a mechanic to receive only two to four hours of repair work a day, said Bekken, who has been hired by several Houston dealerships, including Mike Calvert Toyota, to fight the union drive. This so-called "flat rate" pay system is permitted under federal labor laws. Dealer repair shops that use it don't have to pay overtime to their mechanics. The exemption includes anyone who deals with a vehicle's safety, said Martin Shellist, an employment lawyer who specializes in federal wage and hour laws, with Shellist, Lore & Lazarz in Houston. It doesn't include someone who washes vehicles, paints them or changes oil. But the mechanics are upset because they don't end up earning much under the flat-rate system and would like to earn their normal wage for the time they spend at the shop -- up to $21 an hour -- whether they are working on repairs or not. The flat rate, however, is attractive to other employees because at some dealerships, employees are at work 90 to 100 hours a week, said Mark Hammond, an organizer with District 37 of the Machinists union. It's the most-favored employees who get the "gravy jobs" like brake work, Hammond said. The jobs that are considered more difficult and less lucrative -- like trying to diagnose a whistling noise coming from a windshield -- go to less-favored employees, he said. Those employees also do a lot of warranty work, which doesn't pay as much as conventional repair jobs. Manufacturers set the length of time they will pay for warranty repairs, which is typically about half of what customers with standard work are charged. Mechanics earn the same hourly wage for both types of work, one mechanic explained, but they are paid for a fewer number of hours when the job is under a warranty contract. While the Machinists have been holding organizational get-togethers in parks and coffee shops around Houston, the dealers have been conducting their own meetings. The dealers are teaching employees about the "realities of union representation," Bekken said. Bekken said the Machinists have been organizing across the United States. So far, he said, the union hasn't been too successful. In Las Vegas, for example -- where the union unveiled its new organizing drive with the slogan "Tell your dealer to torque off," and flew in a bevy of organizers -- the union eventually withdrew from the campaigns. But Boysen Anderson, automotive director for the Machinists in Upper Marlboro, Md., said the union is still involved in organizing in Las Vegas. Many of the mechanics' other concerns are typical labor issues, such as receiving regular raises and better insurance benefits. Mike Calvert Toyota mechanics say it has been four or five years since they've had a raise. That's not true, Bekken said. Some employees have waited a while for a raise because of payroll errors, but most have received a bump in pay during the past two years, he said. The employees also complained that they have to pay the full cost of health insurance, which eats up a large part of their paychecks, if they want to cover their families. They get no 401(k) match, they said, and until the organizing drive began a couple of months ago, the mechanics earned only $30 a day for holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Mike Calvert Toyota managers said they had no idea the mechanics were only getting $30 a day and announced shortly after the organizing drive began that they would get a full eight-hour wage for holidays, one mechanic said. Bekken said the previous policy on holiday pay was an error and was corrected before the union's election petition was filed. As for the other demands, Bekken said that just because employees want improved benefits and wages doesn't mean they'll get them if they vote in the union. An election was initially scheduled for Sept. 12 at Baytown Ford, but the union withdrew because of what it called "intimidation tactics." The company was threatening to go to a straight hourly rate -- lower than the mechanics' repair rate -- if the union was voted in, a prospect that upset some employees who clock in 90 flat-rate hours a week, Hammond said. A lot of the mechanics were scared, Hammond said, because they've never been in a union before. They didn't understand that the company has to negotiate a contract and can't just impose one pay system or another, he said. Bekken believes the collapse was linked to employees not wanting union representation. The union withdrew the election because it knew it didn't have the votes to win, he said. For now, the Machinists are putting their organizing efforts into Mike Calvert Toyota and Sterling McCall Lexus. "If we can get one," Hammond said, "it will create a lot of faith."


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  Sept. 24, 2002, 7:50PM

Hard-working immigrants sacrificed on Tarmac


We are in the midst of a crucial debate in our society regarding our government's responsibility to protect us from external threats. We need accountability from the government to ensure a healthy respect for civil rights and liberties in the pursuit of homeland security. In particular, we need policies reasonably designed and implemented to accomplish those goals without sacrificing other important social goods. By all standards, the recent implementation of Operation Tarmac at the Houston airports, like other similar operations elsewhere, represents a failure by our government in the task of balancing these multiple concerns. We have sacrificed hard-working immigrants, whose presence among us demands immigration reform, for a false blanket of security. Federal agents spent months in their high-powered investigation resulting in the criminal indictment of more than 100 workers, the vast majority Latinos. But none of the workers indicted was suspected by government agents to have ties with terrorists. Those arrested were mainly women working in food service and cleaning. Many of the workers had already left their jobs at the time of the arrests. How can we say this action was reasonably designed to accomplish serious goals of homeland security? The security demands after 9/11 require the development of serious intelligence and prevention efforts -- not unrelated, cosmetic measures directed against hard-working families, even if they are undocumented. Operation Tarmac appears as an unjustified expenditure of government resources and confuses questionable immigration enforcement with genuine security issues. Contradictions abound in the stories regarding the Houston operation. According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, only workers with active security badges were arrested. Yet many workers had left their jobs long before the arrests. One would assume their badges were canceled, or should have been. Even so, the federal agents still spent extensive time and resources preparing the cases against these workers for misdemeanor document charges. Tens of thousands of records were reviewed -- not with the intention of finding information leading to terrorist threats -- but, rather, with the intention of finding information pointing to immigration violations. Some observers criticize the government for creating haystacks of information in their search for the needle of intelligence that might lead to the prevention of the next terrorist attack. In this case, the government agents weren't even looking for the needle. The human drama created by this action reveals even more contradictions. While dozens of federal agents combed the city for fast-food workers, children came home to empty houses. Some of those arrested had acquired or were on the verge of acquiring their legal status, but now they may see their dream -- the American dream -- disappear. As we hear their stories, we realize they are typical of the millions of hard-working immigrants who keep the wheels of our economy rolling. These workers are even more necessary in this time of economic recovery. They are part of our communities. Their families include U.S. citizens and legal residents. Many are in the process of legalization. They are no more likely to be terrorists or possess information on terrorists than your average American. They have a strong desire to be accepted in our society as new Americans. Like generations before them, their loyalty and character will surely prove inestimable if given the opportunity. It is important to root out the next terrorist threat, but the unjustified targeting of working immigrants who have the misfortune of having been employed in our airports, not in our fields, is unfair and misguided. Operation Tarmac in Houston threatens to alienate the Latino community from the government's efforts in homeland security. We know, however, the Latino community will continue to serve unreservedly our country's interests in the struggle against terrorism; we ask only respect, fairness and wisdom from the government in its conduct. Our immigration policy was out of balance before 9/11; since then it has become even more distorted by the undifferentiated response to the terrorist threat. The homeland security debate must neither push aside nor overtake the necessary debate -- on its own terms -- of immigration reform. The latter requires a serious look at the status of workers' rights and justice for immigrant workers in our society. Our immigration policy must adapt to our de facto economic reality. These are not easy issues, but we should call ourselves and our leaders to ideals of fundamental fairness and economic justice, respect for civil rights and fidelity to our tradition of welcoming immigrants into the American dream when we tackle necessary reform. Proposals and actions that do not comport with these principles will disserve the nation's interests. Hernández is president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Kahne is vice president of the ACLU of Texas. Medina is executive vice president of Service Employees International.


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  Oct. 7, 2002, 10:22PM

Workers strike at Lufkin Industries

Union points to two large increases in insurance premiums


Unable to reach an agreement over health insurance and retirement benefits, workers at five Lufkin Industries plants went on strike Monday morning. The workers say two large increases in insurance premiums this year are eating into their wages and the pension checks of retirees. The Lufkin-based company, which makes oil-field equipment, said it was forced to raise premiums after experiencing an unusual spike in medical expenses among hourly workers. Paul Perez, vice president and corporate secretary at Lufkin Industries, said the company has increased premiums only twice in the past 12 years. Unfortunately for the workers, he said, both increases came in the same year, including the most recent increase of 25 percent. Currently, workers pay 40 percent of the cost of their health insurance. As for retirees, some are left with little from their pension checks after paying premiums and deductibles, said Todd Rogers, who represents 300 striking machinists in the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. "We don't want people to be retiring in poverty after working so many years at the company," Rogers said. Workers pay $78 a month for health insurance, while an employee and spouse pay $175 a month. A family pays $225 a month. Lufkin Industries offered a 2.25 percent raise the first year, a 2.5 percent raise the second year and a 3 percent raise the third year. Lufkin pays machinists an average of $14.42 an hour, but that is not an issue, Rogers said. The company also offered to increase the retirement benefit $1.25 the first year, $1 in the second year and 75 cents in the third year. Currently, employees receive a monthly retirement benefit equal to $25.75 multiplied by the number of years of service. Since the strike began, managers and supervisors as well as a few hourly employees who crossed the picket lines are operating the plants, Perez said. The Machinists Union is one of three unions that represent the 700 hourly employees at the company. The other two are the International Union of Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers; and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers.


Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle