Jan. 21, 2003, 11:42PM

Seniority divides mill workers Imperial machinists petition leaders for vote on contract


Nearly half of the union-represented employees at Imperial Sugar have signed a petition to force the machinists to present a modification of the company's contract proposal to the membership.

Imperial Sugar, which announced last year it was closing its refining operations in Sugar Land and would keep only its packaging and distributions operations, has been trying to modify its contract with the union regarding severance, seniority and other benefits.

"We pay our dues, but we're not given the right to vote," said Sam Damron, a machinist at Imperial Sugar for 21 years.

Damron presented the petition with the names of 161 workers out of a potential 350 to union leaders, whom he said have declined to call for a vote on the proposed change.

Damron said that if it's a bad package and "we want to vote it in, it's our business."

But Todd Rogers, president and directing business representative of District Lodge 37 for the Machinists union, said there is nothing to bring up with the members because the labor contract doesn't expire until October.

In fact, he said, the union filed unfair labor practice charges last week with the National Labor Relations Board, contending Imperial Sugar is improperly negotiating directly with its employees.

Company managers have had meetings with employees about the contract modifications and sent proposals to employees' homes, Rogers said.

The company wants to choose the employees it retains for its packaging and distribution operations instead of going by seniority, and the petition has been driven by those hand-picked employees, Rogers said.

"They've got 'em riled up," he said.

"If the junior people get it overturned, they could keep their jobs."

But that would hurt the more senior employees who'd stand to lose some of their severance pay, he said.

Some of the jobs would be contracted out, and the wages would be cut for some of the employees who stay, he said.

Duffy Smith, executive vice president of Imperial Sugar, said he hasn't seen the labor board's charges but said there are no grounds for any unfair labor practice allegations.

The company has nothing to do with the two petitions that have asked for membership votes, he said. They have both been generated from the factory floor.


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  Jan. 22, 2003, 12:37AM

Auto mechanics can tally votes on union


Auto mechanics at Mike Calvert Toyota will count ballots on a vote to unionize its workers Thursday after a three-month delay.

The go-ahead to count the votes comes after the National Labor Relations Board rejected the dealer's argument that mechanics at Davis Chevrolet next door, which shares some of the same owners as Mike Calvert, should be included in the union vote.

The two groups of employees don't work together, don't share the same supervisors or cross-train, the board said in rejecting Mike Calvert's argument.

The election of about 30 mechanics was conducted Oct. 9, but the labor board impounded the votes when the dealer raised its objections.

"I'm just hoping that the guys voted the way they said they did," said Mark Hammond, who's expecting a victory.

Hammond is the district organizer for the Machinists union trying to organize hundreds of automobile repair shops around the nation.

"If we can win and get a good contract, they're should be a domino effect at the other dealerships," said Hammond, who said he's already talking to employees at several local dealerships about joining the union.

Robert Bekken, the California attorney representing Mike Calvert Toyota, said, "If for some incredible reason we're nonvictorious, we still have the right to refuse to bargain with the union and appeal it to federal appeals court."

 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  Jan. 22, 2003, 10:34PM

Orchestra hits sour note with musicians

Players say symphony plans to cut salaries, jobs


The Houston Symphony Society plans to cut five positions from the orchestra and impose a 14 percent pay cut Feb. 1, the musicians' spokesman said Wednesday. In response, the players have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging unfair labor practices. "The charges are absolutely without merit," said Art Kent, senior director for public affairs for the society, which operates the orchestra. He would not comment on the ongoing contract negotiations. The two sides have been negotiating a contract to replace the previous 4 1/3-year agreement that expired Oct. 5. The society said in sessions late last week that it would impose new contract conditions next month, according to the players. The biggest change in the society's proposal is eliminating five full-time positions in the string section, said Dave Kirk, the musicians' spokesman and principal tuba player. The symphony has 97 players, a minimum specified in the expired contract. No minimum number of string players is specified; currently there are 61. Many internationally recognized orchestras have more than 100 musicians. According to the players, the society plans to impose a major salary cut but will retain the current 52-week season. The minimum salary would shrink 14 percent to $63,960 annually from the current $74,100. That would take Houston several thousand dollars below the lowest salaries at other full-time American orchestras. Earlier, the society proposed cutting salaries by eliminating several of the nine weeks of paid vacation musicians currently receive. Behind the negotiations is a battle over how to maintain the artistic excellence that the Houston Symphony has achieved since the late 1980s. The orchestra is once more facing significant financial problems. The society reported a $1.6 million deficit for the 2001-02 season and has projected a $2.3 million deficit for the current one. To guarantee long-term stability, the society says it has to eliminate the orchestra's decades-old tradition of deficits and financial crises. It is trying to cut costs and increase revenue. The musicians argue that changes such as cuts in salaries or the size of the orchestra eventually will reduce the artistic quality by forcing members to move to other orchestras. Employers may impose new contract terms when negotiations have reached an impasse, according to labor law. However, the musicians do not believe talks are at an impasse, Kirk said, adding that the negotiating committee has made several cost-cutting proposals. The orchestra has not met as a whole to discuss the latest developments, he said. The NLRB complaint includes charges that the society has made unilateral changes in schedules and programming without consulting the players' artistic advisory committee and has refused to supply enough information for musicians to evaluate the orchestra's fiscal condition. In September the society eliminated 11 concerts from three series and reduced non-musician staff by 15 percent, or nine positions. The orchestra's next performances are Saturday's two concerts with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán of Mexico, the Jan. 30 gala with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Feb. 1-3 opening of a four-week festival of Shakespeare in music led by music director Hans Graf.


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle