Aug. 12, 2003, 9:48PM

Attendants try `Tough LUV' to gain passengers' support

SAN ANTONIO -- Flight attendants from Southwest Airlines on Tuesday started a three-day tour of Texas airports to tell passengers about turbulence in talks to settle a new labor contract with the Dallas-based carrier.

A couple of dozen of Southwest's 7,200 flight attendants picketed outside San Antonio International Airport on the first stop of their "Tough LUV Tour." LUV is the airline's symbol on the New York Stock Exchange.

Among their complaints are lack of pension and retirement insurance plans, and what they call a requirement unique among major carriers: the attendants clean their plane between flights without pay.

Christine Buggy, a Chicago-based flight attendant, says she gave Southwest nearly six hours of free labor during a three-day shift this week.

The Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents the bargaining unit, estimates that the typical Southwest flight attendant works nearly 300 hours a year without compensation.

"We're actually working on the ground, not just sitting there smiling," said Buggy, an eight-year veteran.

Ginger Hardage, a Southwest spokeswoman in Dallas, disputes the notion of work without pay.

"Our flight attendants are paid by the trip, and the philosophical thinking is that the duties (while on the ground) are included within that pay," she said.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  Aug. 18, 2003, 11:14PM

If trucks not mobile, no go on tacos


In a small trailer parked on a pothole-filled lot, Celia Martinez hurriedly serves hungry customers tacos stuffed with chopped cilantro, onions, tomatoes and beef.

The most popular order is the gordita, smaller and thicker than a tortilla, overstuffed and dripping gooey cheese and chunks of meat.

Although a constant stream of customers walk up to the trailer's window and order meals at the taco stand on Airline Drive in Harris County, owner Ana Duran worries that her business is threatened.

That's because last month she received a letter warning mobile food vendors to comply with Harris County's Public Health and Environmental Services Department rules or be shut down.

At issue: Owners of many of the county's 624 mobile food vendors have turned the food wagons into semipermanent fast-food restaurants.

Typically located at busy intersections in largely Hispanic neighborhoods, some operators have taken the wheels off their wagons, put them on cinder blocks and connected them to water and electrical services, county inspectors found.

Increased violations of the Texas Department of Health's rules forced the county to take the action, said Janet Lane, the county's chief of consumer health services.

"These people are permitted as mobile units, which means they need to be able to move," Lane said.

Duran was one unwitting violator of the mobility rules.

She had tied wires into an electric box to get power, and an inspector recently warned the Salvadoran immigrant that she needed a plug-in connection for her taco truck.

Since that inspection, she hired an electrician and fixed the problem, but now Duran, 42, fears the crackdown could cost her the only means of supporting her employees and her family.

Duran's husband, David Herrera, recently lost his job at a body shop.

"If they take away your business, what work will you do?" Duran asks as she shows organizers from the Service Employees International Union how her Lupita's Tacos and Catering taco stand meets the county's regulations.

The union is trying to organize taco truck vendors in the area.

Seventeen years ago, Duran moved to Houston from her San Salvador home. For nearly 15 years she worked cleaning private homes and hotel rooms. She even worked at construction sites, hauling away debris.

Then, less than two years ago, she paid $15,000 for a taco truck and started serving Mexican-style meals. She earns a humble living selling $60 to $70 worth of meals a day.

"I wanted to depend on myself and have something that was mine, and so that the boss wouldn't show up the next day to fire me," Duran said as she stood in front of her place of business, which is smaller than the walk-in closets of some homes.

Now Duran is worried about the rules because like many of the operators of these taco trucks, she speaks little English and is uncertain about whether she's meeting all of the rules. She has asked the county's inspector, who only speaks English, to revisit her trailer to make sure she is.

Lane, the county's chief of consumer health services, said some of the county inspectors and employees speak Spanish. But Jose Benitez, organizing director for the union's local, said the language and cultural barriers between the county and the taco vendors create problems.

In addition to not providing enough Spanish-speaking inspectors for this largely Hispanic-run sector of the food-service business, government officials don't understand that many taco truck owners can't afford more than one vehicle, and the county orders a truck to be on site to haul the trailer.

However, many taco vendors send one family member to pick up bags of tomatoes or onions, and the truck is not always on site, Benitez said.

"This is a family business, and they don't have enough money to buy more than one truck. I know they can't have two trucks -- one to buy tomatoes and the other to have with the taco truck," Benitez said.

The rules governing taco trucks also stipulate that owners must dispose of wastewater and fill their trucks with fresh water at one of the 12 area commissaries. The trouble is many of these commissaries are far from where the taco trucks operate. Union leaders are trying to organize the taco truck operators so owners can afford to pay a company that would visit the taco trucks and empty and refill the water supply, Benitez said.

The union also wants mobile food vendors in the city to band together and pay for these mobile commissaries. About 800 taco trucks operate inside Houston city limits, local union director Orell Fitzsimmons said.

City Councilwoman Anise Parker said the taco trucks need to have fresh water to ensure public safety. Her office receives complaints from constituents and restaurant owners who don't like that the trucks park permanently on vacant lots.

"If they're going to have fixed locations, they need to compete fairly," Parker said.

Taquerias must compete with the taco trucks, and that generates complaints about unfair competition.

"There's a lot of trailers, so you lose some business," said Joel Fuentes, manager of the Taqueria Arandas on Texas 6 and Bellaire Boulevard.

While the taco trucks provide competition, he said, the vendors have the right to earn their living and shouldn't be put out of business.

That's a concern for taco truck customers who like the convenience of the eateries that serve up their culture's food fast.

"If you go to a restaurant, you have to order and wait," said construction worker Francisco Marenco, 32, as he stopped by a taco stand on Airline Drive. "I'm very impatient."

He thinks the taco trucks should obey the county's rules, but he wants the mobile units to continue to operate, he said before he ate four fajita tacos.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  Aug. 20, 2003, 9:52PM

Republican party to rip apart Dems' old offices

By JOHN WILLIAMS, Political Writer

Republicans in Harris County have pounded their Democratic opponents time and time again at the ballot box during the past decade.

Sunday, they intend to throw a grand old party to batter the Democrats' former headquarters in Midtown.

Harris County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill is asking local Republicans to bring sledgehammers and other implements of destruction to help level the building the Democrats vacated three months ago.

"You bring the muscle, we'll bring the refreshments and we will have a party as we tear down the Harris County Democratic Party headquarters," Woodfill said in his invitation to party faithful.

Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Gerry Birnberg was quick with a metaphor. That's what Republicans do, he said, "tearing things down, destroying them."

"They did it to our economy, to our jobs market, to our voting rights, to our democracy, to civility in government, to civil rights, to health care for children, to fair pay for teachers -- they took out their sledgehammers and smashed them to smithereens."

Harris County GOP officials tried to hammer the Democrats with words in a news release on the Dem-olition derby, saying that "the Harris County Democratic Party has been evicted from their party headquarters."

Evict, according to Webster's New World College Dictionary, means "to remove (a tenant) from leased premises by legal procedure, as for failure to pay rent."

Birnberg said the party had a month-to-month lease on the old headquarters on LaBranch until earlier this summer. At that time, the building was sold to a developer who intends to tear it down for a new project. The owner gave the GOP permission to help with the razing.

The Democrats moved into new digs on the North Loop.

"There was no `eviction' any more than Ronald Reagan was `evicted' from the White House when his term was up and he moved to California," Birnberg said. "But truth is not one of the virtues this bunch believes in or embraces."

The Democrats have picked up support from a likely group -- organized labor.

Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the local AFL-CIO, said union members will hold a "peaceful" sidewalk party nearby to watch the GOP "destroy the building and the economy."


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle