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

  AFL-CIO stages protest outside ExxonMobil

By Ken Fountain

Published June 19, 2003

BAYTOWN — About 30 protesters affiliated with the Harris County AFL-CIO Council staged a protest at the North Gate of the ExxonMobil complex early Wednesday as they tried unsuccessfully to present Baytown Refinery Manager Mike Brown with a “No Justice Here” award.

The ExxonMobil refinery was the third of nine stops on the council’s annual “Justice Bus Tour” to the locations of Houston-area employers and the Stafford district office of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land.

The bus carrying the protesters arrived about 10 minutes after its scheduled arrival time of 9:40 and pulled up beside the Texas Historical Marker outside the North Gate of the complex located off Decker Drive.

The protesters were met by Mark Schubert, an ExxonMobil employee and vice president of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union Local 4-2001, one of the unions that represents workers at the plant.

Last month, after acrimonious negotiations, Baytown Chemical Plant workers and ExxonMobil clerical workers accepted separate four-year contract offers from the company. In April, PACE refinery worker members voted to accept a four-year contract from the company.

Richard Shaw, the council’s secretary/treasurer, said that the protest at ExxonMobil was directed at perceived unfair treatment of clerical workers in their contract, particularly a one-time $1,000 payment instead of a raise. This was especially unfair, Shaw said, in light of ExxonMobil Chief Executive Officer Lee Raymond’s $76 million salary and bonus in fiscal year 2001.

The protesters also lambasted the corporation for “ending” contract negotiations with “a contract offer which was in no way ‘fair,’” according to a statement read by one of them over megaphone.

“Shame on you,” the protesters repeatedly chanted.

The company’s response to the protesters was relatively muted. A few officials drove from the plant to the gate, and one of them told the protesters they had to leave the private road leading to the gate.

After a few minutes, the protesters filed quietly back aboard the bus, but not before exclaiming “We’ll be back.”

Shaw attempted to hand a framed “No Justice Award” plaque to the officials, but after being rebuffed, he leaned it against a concrete barrier.

“You try to give someone an award, and they won’t take it,” Shaw joked with a security guard, who good-naturedly shrugged his shoulders.

A short time later, after the bus had pulled away, the plaque was gone.

In a written statement released after the protest, ExxonMobil Baytown Area Public Affairs Manager Brian Dunphy said, “We are surpassed and disappointed that the union leadership took this action.

“The members of all six of the unions that represent our Refinery and Chemical Plant have recently approved new four-year contracts. We have a long history of working successfully with the unions that represent our facilities, and look forward to an ongoing cooperative relationship,” the statement said.


 Copyright 2003 Baytown Sun

  Disgruntled Lyondell employees try to initiate fresh start with rally


Citizen staff June 19, 2003

More than 50 employees held signs declaring their desire for justice at Lyondell Citgo Refinery yesterday.

Glistening with sweat in 90 degree weather, over 50 employees of Lyondell-Citgo Refinery LP stood outside the plant yesterday holding signs spelling "No Justice Here" in large red letters. "What do we want? JUSTICE! When do we want it? NOW!" they chanted. The Lyondell-Citgo refinery was the sixth stop for the Justice Bus, an annual Harris County AFL-CIO venture that either recognizes companies for their cooperation with unions or calls them down for hindering employee-employer relationships. The bus was a Coach USA charter bus with signs taped on the sides reading "No More Business as Usual" and "Voices at Work: Freedom to Choose a Union."Gene Oliver, an LCR employee and chairman of the PACE union workforce committee, attributed Lyondell-Citgo's "No Justice Here Award" to the management's reinterpretation of union contracts.

"They are making these unilateral changes without ever wanting to talk to us and negotiate with us," Oliver said.

Employees present cited changes in overtime payment plans, termination of people taking leaves of absence and requiring hourly workers to carry pagers in off-duty hours as a few of the reasons for their rally outside the plant's main gate.

"Originally, they said the pagers were for emergencies, but we get called out to the plant regularly," Oliver said. "Relations are at an all-time low. No one really wants to work more hours than they have to."

Leaders of the rally used a megaphone to call on management to come outside and accept the award as a gesture of a fresh start, but no one did.

David Harpole, LCR spokesman, said the company did not view the rally as a tool for communication.

"We observed a publicity stunt taking place in front of our facility, and we elected not to participate in it," Harpole said.

Other than the PACE union indicating it was going to express its displeasure to make a point, Lyondell-Citgo had no previous awareness of the Justice Bus, Harpole added.

Insisting there are a number of opportunities for dialogue between management and employees, particularly union heads, at any time, Harpole pointed to a "defined process" in the union contract used to resolve differences.

Steps taken in the last two years have significantly changed how the plant operates its business, but it has made the plant safer and more competitive, Harpole said.

"No one has been exempt from these changes," he said. "Management and all of our salary employees have had to adjust to and participate in these changes"

The most recent change Lyondell-Citgo announced was the elimination of 60 salary-paid jobs, a process that began in early May and is supposed to be completed by this month's end.

The Justice Bus visited seven companies and one U.S. representative yesterday. No one received a positive award this year, because no unions made nominations for such an award.

Companies receiving the negative awards did so because Harris County AFL-CIO deemed them either poor contract negotiators or unwilling to bargain a contract. A union of teachers in Fort Bend claimed U.S. Representative Tom Delay, R-Sugarland, earned his award for supporting a Social Security bill that hurts teachers' retirement benefits.

Financial struggles caused by a faltering economy were a major reason for all negative and no positive company awards, said Richard Shaw, Harris County AFL-CIO Council secretary/treasurer.

"Bargaining is getting tougher because the economy is getting tougher," Shaw said. "When times get tough, you get friction between employers and employees."

Shaw added that the frustrations vented in front of the LCR plant came down to the issue of the employees desiring respect.

PACE Local 4227 represents 99 percent of Lyondell-Citgo's hourly workforce and 560 workers total.

Other than Lyondell-Citgo, the Harris County Justice Bus visited ExxonMobil, West Aviation College, Cintas, Milam and Painters, Baker Concrete Construction, Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift and Imperial Sugar.

Keri Mitchell can be reached at


 Copyright 2003 HCN / Citizen