June 22, 2003, 7:35PM The World in Houston

Little Latino activism here


With nearly a half-million Mexicans living here, Houston ought to be a hotbed of Latino immigrant political activism.

But it isn't.

Unlike cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, where Mexicans form organizations to push for their rights on both sides of the border, Houston-based immigrants remain remarkably disenfranchised.

That's especially true in transitional neighborhoods like Spring Branch. More than half the kids in the Spring Branch school district are Hispanic, many of them the children of immigrants. Yet no Hispanic has ever been elected to the school board.

In political terms, "Mexicans in Houston are very hidden," says Gustavo Cano, a Mexican professor who completed a study last year contrasting immigrant political mobilization in Houston and Chicago.

Cano originally set out to do a national study of Mexican political activism in America. He wanted to focus on Mexican immigrants, a population he defined as very different from second- or third-generation Mexican Americans.

But when he called someone at the Mexican Consulate in Houston, he was surprised to hear the diplomat advise him to skip the city for his study.

"He told me there was nothing doing in Houston, and I would waste my time," said Cano, currently a visiting fellow at the University of California at San Diego. The observation only made Cano more curious. Why would a city with so many immigrants have so little political organizing?

Cano's answers: The border and zoning.

Because Houston sits near the border, some immigrants can go home easily, which means they have less need to form organizations here. When immigrants in Houston get homesick, they go home.

In Chicago, immigrants are a long way from home, so they form important organizations to help their native villages, promote Mexican political candidates and stave off homesickness. After organizing to help their relatives back in Mexico, the groups eventually focus on local issues in Chicago.

Location matters in another way. Chicago is likely to be the end of the line for immigrants. They settle down, which is the first step toward getting involved. Houston, by contrast, is likely to be just a first stop for immigrants.

Chicago is an old city with well-defined ethnic neighborhoods. Houston is a sprawling city, growing in a patchwork form because of an abundance of annexations and a lack of zoning. Immigrants follow the jobs in construction, which can take them anywhere.

"Chicago is an extremely segregated city," Cano said. "In Houston, you have Mexicans all over the place."

Segregation is usually a dirty word in racial politics, but Cano raises an interesting paradox. When Mexicans have their own neighborhood, they are more likely to feel a sense of community, which promotes activism.

When asked to give their thoughts on Cano's theory, a couple of local activists agreed that Houston is a tough city for organizing immigrants, but for different reasons.

Adriana Cadena, an immigrant labor organizer with the Service Employees International Union, said she thinks the movement of people is the biggest problem.

Cristobal Hinojosa, with Mexicans in Action, said he thinks the city's layout is the most important factor.

"The (Mexican) community in Houston is too dispersed," he said. "Even Austin and San Antonio are better organized."


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  June 26, 2003, 11:29PM

Efficiency's up but morale's down at Lyondell-Citgo


From all appearances, life looks normal at the Lyondell-Citgo Refinery on the Houston Ship Channel.

The PACE union flag flies in front of the sprawling refinery off Texas 225, and union members sit alongside management representatives on key safety committees.

But union representatives and rank-and-file employees say the atmosphere between labor and management has turned poisonous.

The workers say many of their colleagues have been unfairly terminated, a sizable portion of the plant has been disciplined and an atmosphere of fear has pervaded the refinery.

The company is using discipline to throttle any dissent, said Jim Lefton, international representative for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union in Houston, which represents Lyondell-Citgo's 525 hourly workers.

If an employee raises safety or maintenance concerns, Lyondell-Citgo finds a minor problem with that worker's performance and disciplines him, Lefton said. If the worker stumbles again in the next four years, he's fired, he added.

Bill Thompson, the refinery's general manager, disagrees. Employees are not terminated or punished for bringing up problems, he said.

He attributes much of the tension between workers and management to the recent rapid pace of change at the plant.

Three years ago, the refinery's profits were lagging and its costs were too high, said Thompson, who was brought in to make improvements.

He consolidated operations in a central control room, beefed up training and reworked schedules to reduce overtime and contractor labor.

The upshot: The number of days the refinery is off line has fallen dramatically, reliability has improved and environmental emissions have dropped sharply.

To celebrate, hourly employees got an average bonus of $5,000 last year.

To make those changes, Thompson said, he has been pushing the boundaries of the labor agreement against a union that doesn't have the level of influence and control it once had.

Regardless of the reason for the tension, in two years, Lyondell has had to pay more than $750,000 in back wages and benefits to employees after arbitrators ruled they were unjustly terminated.

One of those employees is Sophia Castillo, a chemical process operator who had worked at Lyondell-Citgo for 11 years.

When she sought to return to work after a two-month illness, the refinery's doctor said she wasn't ready and kept her home an extra 20 days, she said. But then the company fired her because that 20-day absence was excessive under the company's "Attendance Improvement Program," she said.

Castillo complained, and an independent arbitrator ruled that Lyondell-Citgo "failed to conduct a proper investigation" nor did it determine the circumstances of her absence before firing her.

The arbitrator, Don Harr, told Lyondell-Citgo in January to reinstate Castillo and give her 18 months of back wages and benefits. But Castillo still hasn't gone back to work because the company said she first had to pass a "function" test, which among other things required her to prove she could climb continuously for three hours.

Castillo said she failed and was terminated again April 7.

Now she's filed another grievance and wants an independent physician to evaluate the test, which she believes is unfair.

"I feel like they were picking on me," she said. She hopes she'll get it straightened out, but in the meantime, she no longer has a job and is paying $400 a month out of her own pocket for health care.

Lyondell-Citgo officials said they couldn't discuss Castillo's case because it involves her medical history.

But Thompson said the amount of back pay awards the plant has had to pay is artificially high because some of the arbitrators have taken many months to decide the cases. Some of the awards represent two years of back pay, he said.

Moreover, Thompson said, termination decisions are not made lightly and he reviews each one.

Union officials are also upset that 40 percent of the hourly employees at the plant are in some stage of the disciplinary process. Some are on probation, while others have received verbal and written warnings, said David Taylor, a process operator at the refinery and also a member of the PACE workers committee.

Thompson said the bulk of those employees have been "coached," an informal way the plant uses to improve job performance. The union insisted on including the coaching as part of the disciplinary procedure, so that's why the number appears so high, he said.

"The vast majority of employees are good people," he said. "We don't see 40 percent of our population in jeopardy."

Although Thompson attributes some of the troubles to a long history of difficult labor-management relations at the plant, he expects to see a turnaround in the relationship this year as the pace of change slows down.

And he said he's committed to improving relations with employees by meeting regularly and answering their anonymous e-mail questions.

"It will never be a great plant without a collaborative relationship with the union," he said.

Meanwhile, the union is trying to step up pressure, handing out leaflets at the annual shareholders meeting and contacting members of the board about some of the troubles.

It's also trying to rent a billboard about a half-mile from the refinery to serve as a reminder that while the plant has record profits and record safety performance, the union believes it also holds the record for employee terminations and bad employee morale.

The art's ready to go, Lefton said. The only problem is trying to convince the billboard owner that it's not an "attack ad."


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  June 15, 2003, 11:16PM

Putting migrants on road to rights

Laborers urged to join ride to East Coast rally


Labor and civil rights activists joined politicians in Houston to rally immigrant laborers for a 1960s-style march to Washington, D.C.

Gearing up for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride in September, activists like the Rev. Joseph Lowery urged immigrants on Saturday to unite with each other and African-Americans in the struggle to gain better wages and civil rights.

"We may have come over on different ships, but we're all on the same boat now," said Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr.

Inspired by the freedom rides of the civil rights movement, organizers from major cities plan to take buses filled with immigrant workers to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 20-Oct. 4.

The workers will stop in cities across the country to seek support and once in the capital, meet with members of Congress. On Oct. 4, they plan to hold a mass rally for immigrants' rights in New York City.

They will ask for a plan for citizenship for all immigrant workers, the right for immigrant workers to reunite with their families, and greater workplace rights.

The ride is organized by a committee whose members include the AFL-CIO, labor unions, religious groups, students and civil rights activists.

At the kickoff event Saturday, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, said the right for better wages and rights of immigrants was a greater battle for freedom.

He said undocumented immigrants contribute in labor and sales taxes. "It is important that we understand they contribute so greatly," said Gutierrez, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Task Force on Immigration.

Citing early treatment of Italian, Irish and Polish immigrants, Gutierrez said immigrants have historically been viewed as a nuisance to the country.

Immigrants who do not work or pay taxes should be deported, but those who contribute should be rewarded with greater rights, Gutierrez said.

He said children of undocumented immigrants should be able to attend universities, and immigrants who join the military should be granted citizenship and their families considered for citizenship if they die in combat.

About 200 people attended the event.

U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, said he would work in Congress and in the streets of Houston to help immigrant workers gain better treatment.

"No matter what your citizenship is, you still deserve the dignity of being treated fairly," Green said.

Houston City Councilman Gordon Quan said the country's current political atmosphere seems especially bad for immigrants.

"We've had enough ... we must speak out about the treatment of immigrants in this country," he said.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle