Jan. 27, 2003, 11:13PM

National union taking a look at Imperial Sugar seniority


The president of the machinists union has promised to investigate an internal squabble at the Imperial Sugar plant in Sugar Land. Thomas Buffenbarger, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers president, said he was contacted Friday by machinist Walter "Sam" Damron, who asked him to intervene. Damron is trying to force local union leaders to present the company's latest contract modification to a vote, but the leadership has refused. Imperial Sugar is shutting down its refinery operations but plans to retain its packaging and distribution operations, hanging on to between 105 and 112 workers. As part of the downsizing, the company wants to amend its current labor agreement concerning severance, seniority and pay rates. Despite Damron's request for a vote, local union officials contend there is nothing to vote on because the current contract doesn't expire until October. And until then, seniority rules govern a layoff. More than half of the union members, 166 out of 297, have signed a petition asking for union leaders to bring the company's proposal to a vote. The proposal would permit the company to chose its employees instead of going by a seniority system as well as changing some pay rates and severance. Buffenbarger, who has asked union officers in Dallas to investigate the situation, said the union's obligation is to look out for all the workers. But it was the members themselves who created the contract they work under, he said. And those rules can't be changed suddenly when one group is unhappy. Duffy Smith, executive vice president of Imperial Sugar, said he'd like to see the workers get a chance to vote on the company's offer. And he said that even on the company's list of employees it would like to retain, 70 percent have the most seniority in the plant.


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  Jan. 29, 2003, 9:50PM

Musicians hope walkout strikes a chord in dispute


In a historic move, musicians of the Houston Symphony said they will stage a one-day strike Saturday to protest the lack of a new contract with the Houston Symphony Society.

The players have never struck in the orchestra's 90-year history, said Roger Kaza, chair of the musicians' negotiating committee.

"Houston's cultural jewel is at risk," said players representative Dave Kirk in a Wednesday news conference at Jones Hall, where approximately 30 of the orchestra's 97 members gathered. "The prolonged contract dispute now necessitates a show of resolve."

The walkout scuttles the first of three highly anticipated performances with violin superstar Midori and Houston music director Hans Graf. The Sunday and Monday performances will come off as planned, musicians said.

Tonight's gala concert with cellist Yo-Yo Ma also is expected to occur as planned.

"We were surprised and disappointed at the decision of the musicians to stage a walkout," said Art Kent, the orchestra's senior director of public affairs. "We were not expecting this, especially since negotiations are continuing."

Kent said the orchestra's customer service center will attempt to contact patrons holding tickets for Saturday's concert and reseat them for Sunday or Monday.

A performer of Midori's caliber would be expected to attract a near sellout audience of more than 2,000 on Saturday.

"The musicians' walkout causes a major inconvenience for symphony patrons and results in a significant loss of revenue for the Houston Symphony, which is already battling to overcome a severe financial crisis," management said in a statement.

Kent said the symphony would have to pay Midori's fee for the canceled concert and cover refunds to some ticket-holders and the extra costs of reseating others. He said it was too early to estimate the total loss.

The musicians have performed without a contract since the previous agreement expired Oct. 5. Additional negotiating sessions, covering minimum salary, size of health insurance premiums and other issues, are tentatively scheduled for the week of Feb. 10, Kent said.

The musicians said they scheduled the strike for Saturday because it's the day management intends to impose a 14 percent salary cut, raise health insurance premiums and begin reducing the orchestra by five players through attrition.

The Houston Symphony Society, which operates the orchestra, has not confirmed those terms.

The musicians said they may cancel other concerts, as well.

"We will evaluate our future performance schedule as negotiations proceed," Kirk said.

The confrontation comes after several years of relative calm among American orchestras. No major ensemble has staged a full-fledged strike since 1996, when Atlanta, Philadelphia and San Francisco all walked out in actions lasting between seven and 10 weeks.

The last time the Houston Symphony ceased performances during a labor dispute was in 1976, when management held a 3 1/2-month lockout.

The Houston players threatened to strike in September 1997 after playing without a contract for more than three months. An agreement reached just before the deadline averted the walkout.

Current negotiations have been contentious. The society says it faces a $2.3 million deficit this season and must address its historic pattern of deficit spending.

The musicians see any cuts as a long-term threat to the artistic quality of the orchestra. They want the society to raise their salaries to the national average by 2007 and improve seniority pay.

Currently, the minimum annual salary in Houston is $74,100. The national average, according to the musicians, is approximately $89,800.


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  February 9, 2003

Suit Claims Discrimination Against Hispanics on Job


HOUSTON Ever since Lazaro Garcia went to work at the giant Quietflex factory that makes ducts for air-conditioners, he has been upset by the stark segregation of the work force.

In the department that makes most components for the ducts, all but 4 of the 60 or so workers are of Vietnamese origin. But in Mr. Garcia's department, which assembles the components into finished ducts, every one of the 80 workers is Hispanic.

Mr. Garcia said that when he applied to transfer to the other department, Department 910, where many workers say the pay is higher and the work easier and less dangerous, management did not even respond.

"I'd like to work in Department 910 because the pay is so much better they make about $5,000 more a year," said Mr. Garcia, a 38-year-old immigrant from Mexico who has worked at the factory five years. "We feel frustrated because we know we can do the work in that department."

Workers and federal officials say they are surprised that the factory remains so segregated three years after 91 workers filed charges with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing the factory's owner, the Quietflex Manufacturing Company, of illegal discrimination. After months of fruitless efforts to negotiate a settlement with Quietflex, the commission intervened last September in a private lawsuit against Quietflex, eager to change what it says is one of the worst cases of work force segregation it has seen in years.

"This is the type of crude segregation that the nation's antisegregation laws were supposed to get rid of decades ago," said Leticia Saucedo, staff lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which brought the original lawsuit for six Hispanic workers.

Immigration experts say Quietflex is one of a fast-growing number of workplaces where Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, face serious discrimination and other abuses.

In Connecticut, the National Labor Relations Board recently accused the Chef Solutions bakery of threatening to have Hispanic workers deported if they voted to unionize.

Last September, the E.E.O.C. reached a $1.53 million settlement with DeCoster Farms, after the government sued on behalf of five Mexican workers who said they had been raped and abused by supervisors at the company's egg-producing plants in Iowa.

"The accelerating immigration of Hispanics has meant massively downward pressure on their wages, negotiating power and ability to confront their employers over violations of their rights," said Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University in Houston, who studies immigration. "Whether you're legal or not, you need that job, and you don't want to raise problems because there are a lot of other people in line for that job."

Cari M. Dominguez, chairwoman of the equal employment commission, said most employers treated Hispanic workers fairly, but, referring to Quietflex and several other companies, she added, "When we do find employers that prey upon the most vulnerable, we want to make sure the full force of the law comes down on them."

Gerald Maatman, a lawyer for Quietflex, denied that the factory, a nondescript hangarlike building in northwest Houston, had engaged in illegal discrimination.

"We think the allegations that talk about the low numbers or segregation of Hispanics are just wrong," Mr. Maatman said. "When the facts come to light in the courthouse, we're confident they will back up our defense that we don't discriminate against folks and we certainly don't discriminate against Hispanics."

Mr. Maatman maintained that Quietflex had an excellent record hiring and paying immigrants, denying there was any pay disparities between departments. About 91 percent of the factory's workers are immigrants, far higher than for most companies in Houston. Mr. Maatman said Quietflex paid $10 to $14 an hour on average, translating to $20,000 to $28,000 a year, higher than wages paid by many other factories in Houston.

Fermin Colindres, who worked at Quietflex for four years, acknowledged that the pay was pretty good, but he said what galled the Hispanic workers was that they received several dollars less an hour than their Vietnamese counterparts while working harder. Noting that most workers were paid piece rate, Mr. Colindres and other workers estimated that Hispanic employees often earned $80 a day, while the Vietnamese earned $110, sometimes while working fewer hours.

After a lengthy investigation, the equal employment commission reached the same conclusion, stating that Hispanic workers "are generally paid considerably less than workers in Department 910, including some who have less experience." Not surprisingly, Mr. Colindres wanted to transfer. "As hard as I tried, I couldn't transfer out of my department to 910," he said "In 910, it's all mechanized. It's as if you can do the whole job sitting down. In our department, Department 911, it's more dangerous. You have to move things that are a lot heavier. There's a lot of fiberglass dust in the air. There were many people injured."

Three years ago, Mr. Colindres led a one-day strike by 80 Hispanic workers. The walkout was unusual because the workers were not represented by a union. They walked out to protest discrimination, including a practice, since dropped, in which several Hispanic workers, but never Vietnamese ones, were selected each week to clean the lunchroom, without being paid for that work.

"It was a matter of dignity," Mr. Colindres said. "We felt humiliated."

Quietflex fired all the strikers, saying they had illegally refused to leave the factory's parking lot. But facing intense pressure from politicians, the clergy and labor leaders, the company rehired them 10 days later.

Mr. Colindres said management often told Hispanic workers who wanted to transfer to Department 910 that they could not because they did not speak English. Yet, the equal employment commission found that Quietflex placed many Vietnamese workers there even though they did not speak English.

One company defense is that the supervisor in Department 910 is Vietnamese. As a result, Vietnamese workers who do not speak English can communicate with him, but Hispanic workers who do not speak English cannot.

After the strike by Quietflex workers, the Sheet Metal Workers' Union sought to unionize the factory. But the workers voted 145 to 81 against unionizing, after management spent more than $400,000 on antiunion consultants. Most Hispanic workers voted for a union, but most Vietnamese voted against.

"It was a classic case of pitting one racial or ethnic group against another," said Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. in Houston.