Oct. 28, 2002, 10:14PM

Dow Chemical workers vote to stick with union


Employees at the Dow Chemical plant in Texas City voted to remain unionized after the company questioned whether the union really represented its employees.

Sixty-nine percent of the 363 employees at the chemical plant that makes paints, adhesives and alcohols voted to keep the Texas City Metal Trades Council, a coalition of 12 unions, as their bargaining agent during a vote Thursday and Friday.

The plant is the former Union Carbide location that was sold to Dow in February 2001.

"We are strong and united at this facility, and this vote proved it," said Jesse J. Sanchez, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 347, which represents the largest group of workers in the plant.

"It is time for Dow management to rethink its anti-union practices and come to the bargaining table to negotiate in good faith a new collective bargaining agreement," Sanchez said in a prepared statement.

"We had hoped that our employees better understood the benefits of being a salaried operation," said Dennis Rygaard, public affairs leader for Dow's Texas City operations, using the company's phrase for "nonunion."

Most of Dow's sites are nonunion, and they have higher productivity, higher worker satisfaction and receive the greatest portion of the money allocated to capital investment, Rygaard said.

He said nonunion plants get a larger proportion of the money for capital investments because union plants are more expensive to run. The company has to plan and train management employees in the event of a work stoppage, and it's more expensive to negotiate contracts, he said.

Kenneth S. Zinn, North American Regional Coordinator of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers Unions, said his group has noticed that Dow has been increasingly putting its money into nonunion plants, pointing to recent company plans to shut down unionized plants in Kentucky and New Jersey.

"That concerns us," said Zinn, whose Washington, D.C.-based federation participated in fighting the decertification election in Texas City.

The company is looking for a "low-road strategy," as it tries to cut its costs on the backs of employees, he said. Dow looks at employees as a cost item rather than as its most important asset, Zinn said.

Dow filed a petition questioning the unions' representation with the National Labor Relations Board in January because the company believed the majority of employees no longer wanted to be represented by a union, Rygaard said.

Some employees came forward to the company and said they no longer wanted to be represented, he said.

The last contract expired April 1, and Dow made its last offer a month later. The offer is still on the table, Rygaard said.

Zinn said he hopes the vote will lead to a more constructive relationship between Dow and its employees.


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  Oct. 29, 2002, 6:40AM

Current partners besting U.S. in lopsided deal


When the North American Free Trade Agreement was being negotiated more than a decade ago, the proposal to reduce tariffs among Mexico, the United States and Canada was a volatile, scary topic for some Americans.

Now supporters and critics alike use the same word to describe NAFTA and the way commerce flows across borders: inevitable.

"For better or worse, whether you like NAFTA or not, you couldn't stop it," concludes international economist Christopher Holomon.

President Bush is now pursuing a similar trade pact to drop tariffs in most of the Western Hemisphere -- the Free Trade Area of the Americas. U.S. labor leaders say they will put up a fight, just like they did against NAFTA.

"What's important to do is see NAFTA as a part of an ongoing trend toward writing rules for the global economy," said AFL/CIO trade analyst Thea Lea. "I think the point is not to prevent trade from taking place, or investments from crossing borders, but to create ground rules that are fair to everyone."

In the aggregate, NAFTA has accomplished exactly what its negotiators set out to do.

Exports from the three North American countries have risen enormously, and the prices of consumer goods in the United States have not. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick maintains that the lower cost of goods saves the average American family $1,300 to $2,000 a year.

Many economists believe that the pact has slowed the advance of Asian and European countries in the U.S. trade arena.

But the job losses in the manufacturing sector and rising U.S. trade deficit are troubling to many. And even free trade advocates wonder where the pursuit of the lowest international wage will end.

"Consumers don't really want to buy goods made by a 5-year-old chained to a machine," Lea said. "People understand that in the U.S. we pay a higher price for goods because we don't have slave labor or children working. How is it right to say if it's imported, who cares?"

Convincing people of the dangers of the rising trade deficit is a complicated pursuit that demands more than an emotional appeal. The overall good health of the U.S. economy clearly contributes to U.S. demand for goods, but some economists fear that the widening gap between imports and exports will result in future economic instability.

Celebrating exports without acknowledging the disproportionately higher growth in imports is faulty accounting, warns Robert E. Scott, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute.

"It's like balancing your checkbook by counting only the deposits and not the withdrawals," Scott said.

In 2001, Mexico sold to the United States goods worth $131.3 billion, while the country bought from the United States goods worth $101.3 billion -- a trade imbalance, or deficit, of $30 billion.

The trade deficit with the United States' other NAFTA partner, Canada, was worse -- around $53 billion. And the U.S. trade deficit with China in 2001 was a whopping $83 billion.

Since the strength of the U.S. economy depends, in part, on the confidence of foreign investors, some economists believe that those investors will eventually get nervous about a country that buys so much more than it produces.

But trade representative Zoellick said the global economy would be in much worse shape without the U.S. trade deficit.

"If the U.S. weren't growing, and the U.S. weren't importing, I'll tell you, the rest of the world would really be in a difficult circumstance," he said.

University of Texas economist James Galbraith says the real issue is how long the rest of the world is willing to stock up on dollars as a gesture of faith.

"If they are unwilling to completely finance that trade deficit, then either we can't get back to full employment or the dollar is going to fall off its perch as the key reserve currency in the world," Galbraith said. "Either is disastrous."

Some observers think the real trade-related disaster is occurring in the American work force.

While it is true that the United States has created far more jobs during the NAFTA era than it has lost in trade-threatened industries, the majority of new jobs are in the lower-paying service industry. So the gap in income between rich and poor is increasing.

That's unsettling news for a country pegged to the strength of the middle class.

"The American work force is undergoing a transition larger than anything we have seen since people left the farms for the cities and started working in factories," Secretary of Labor Elaine Chou said last month in Los Angeles. But she said she remains optimistic about the country's future, adding, "We have an excellent, resilient work force."

Free trade enthusiasts say the United States will continue to manufacture those goods that require greater skills than are available in underdeveloped nations, or appeal to niche markets.

"Those of us who believe in the overwhelming logic of free trade can't avoid that it comes at substantial human cost," said Holomon, a professor of international political economy at Hilbert College in New York. It's easy to say free trade makes society better, Holomon added, because it does.

"But those individual (job loss) stories are tragic," he said. "The government has not done a very good job of retraining. And even if you retrain, it doesn't guarantee you a job."

Because of the state's proximity to Mexico, and existing trade patterns, most Texas politicians saw great advantage in NAFTA. But U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, bucked the tide and voted against it.

He says he would do the same thing again, though it proved to be a political millstone.

"I don't think President Clinton (who signed NAFTA into law) was as sensitive to job loss as he should have been," Green said.

As a business major at the University of Houston, Green said he learned that many economic models are great in theory. In pure economic terms, he said, a country should produce those products it can produce best.

"But any country in the world will have high-skilled workers and workers who can't achieve those skills," Green said. "If they don't achieve those skills, are you relegating them to a subculture? That's what's bothering me."

The Houston congressman said he met Vicente Fox in 1998, before he was elected president of Mexico. They discussed Green's reservations about NAFTA, and Fox told Green that if he had been negotiating NAFTA he would have used the European market model.

The European market model involves building up the economy of a potential trade member before it is allowed to join the group, Green said. Because new members begin trading on a more equal footing, he said, wages are more comparable and factories are less encouraged to jump from one country to the next in pursuit of the bottom line.

"Trade will help raise the standard of living, but it's disproportionate," Green said. "I think we want to raise the standard of living for everyone. We don't want to have winners and losers in trade in our country any more than we want it in a neighboring country."


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  Bayport Terminal is needed for job security in southeast Harris County

I have been dismayed by recent Outlook articles "Houston Matters / The future of southeast Harris County is at risk" (Sept. 29 Outlook article by state Reps. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, and John Davis, R-Houston) and "Bay area under assault by rail, Bayport plans" (Nov. 4 Outlook article by Shoreacres Mayor Nancy Edmondson, Taylor Lake Village Mayor Natalie O'Neill and Seabrook Mayor Robin Riley).

These opinion pieces wrongly asserted that the Port of Houston Authority's proposed Bayport Container and Cruise Terminal will threaten the security of residents in the area and cause harm to the character of southeast Harris County.

The proposed Bayport facility will provide job opportunities for hard-working people, stimulate the region's economic development, attract thousands of tourists for cruises, increase business revenues, maintain Houston's affordable quality of life and continue to position Houston as a vital gateway for global commerce and trade. Studies by international trade experts have predicted that waterborne trade will double over the next 20 years, making Bayport vital for preserving Houston's stature as an international city.

This proposed modern terminal will make Houston more attractive for businesses to relocate here and will protect southeast Harris County's image and character by employing innovative solutions to community concerns of noise and air pollution, lighting, traffic and storm water. Contrary to false claims, southeast Harris County will thrive with Bayport -- not be attacked, destroyed or devastated.

Port security is an issue for Houston, as well as a priority for officials at ports throughout the United States and around the world; and we must have faith in the capabilities of the U.S. Coast Guard, Customs Service, FBI, Immigration and Naturalization Service and all local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to work together to protect our ports and neighboring communities.

Enhanced security procedures, cooperation among officials and the development and implementation of effective new technologies are the necessary and sensible keys to success in port security.

My friends and colleagues at the International Longshoremen's Association who work on the Port Authority's docks move more than 1 million 20-foot equivalent units each year. That is 64 percent of the containerized cargo in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. More than 93 percent of the container market in Texas comes across the Port of Houston docks.

In 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, I observed the crucial role that the Port Authority's Barbours Cut Container Facility played as a hub for equipment and supply shipments to U.S. troops overseas. Everything from tanks and Hummers to containers filled with ready-to-eat meals went through this facility.

All told, the Port of Houston ranked second and third, respectively, in the number of vessels and the amount of cargo shipped through the waterway in support of the U.S. military's operations during the conflict in the Persian Gulf region -- thanks largely to the teamwork of the Port Authority and the ILA.

Barbours Cut Terminal could not stage that level of support for a similar U.S. military operation today because it doesn't have the capacity -- not even for a fraction of the cargo that was handled there just 10 years ago. Building and operating a modern intermodal terminal at Bayport would help ensure that crucial equipment and supplies could be shipped to our troops in distant locations quickly and efficiently.

The alternative sites to Bayport that have been suggested are not practical for the Port Authority because they are not appropriate for the rapidly rising scope and scale of Houston's global trade and commerce.

Spilman Island -- a disposal site for dredge material from the Houston Ship Channel -- would require much work over six years just to make it suitable for a container terminal. In addition, an environmental mitigation plan would be necessary for the preparation of a separate new property for the placement of approximately 48 million cubic yards of current and future ship channel dredge material.

This would cost Harris County taxpayers at least half a billion dollars more than the proposed Bayport project.

Regarding the Texas City site, a public-private partnership has already proposed a container terminal at Shoal Point and there is enough container business in the region to accommodate the construction of both the Shoal Point Terminal and the Bayport Terminal. Considering the projected growth for container business in Houston, both facilities may well be needed to meet demand.

The attempts to tie the San Jacinto Railroad project with the Bayport Terminal are also wrong. The Port Authority already has plans for its own dedicated rail heading north to Barbours Cut -- the opposite direction of the San Jacinto Rail.

The Port Authority rail will link the Bayport cargo with the Barbours Cut cargo to create the volume needed to attract more rail service, thus removing trucks from the roadways.

The San Jacinto railroad is not going to carry containers from Bayport but, instead, will attempt to attract business from the massive Bayport chemical complex bordering the Port Authority's property at Bayport. With more than 50 chemical companies in this complex, the railroad will have plenty of business without the Port's containers.

The Port Authority has been a good-faith participant in the permit process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Through its cooperation with federal, state and local agencies, communities, their industrial neighbors, interest groups and the general public, it has found ways to be environmentally friendly and unobtrusive while providing Houston the international trade and jobs it desires.

The Port Authority should be encouraged to move forward with its plans for the Bayport Container and Cruise Terminal so that it can generate jobs and opportunities for local businesses, increase tax revenues and protect the quality of life for the residents of southeast Harris County for years to come.

Clyde Fitzgerald, president, South Atlantic and Gulf Coast District, International Longshoremen's Association, Galveston