The Republicans have backed down and will not hold their demolition party. Therefore, the Harris County AFL-CIO Council will not hold its planned Street Heat event on Sunday at the former Harris County Democrat HQ . Thank you for your support!! - Richard C. Shaw

Aug. 22, 2003, 9:28PM

Local GOP axes demolition party

Harris County Republicans still plan to party Sunday, but they won't be swinging -- at least not with the sledgehammers they were going to use on the vacated headquarters of their Democratic rivals.

County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill said Friday night that the party received anonymous threats after announcing plans to gather Sunday afternoon and hammer on the former Democratic headquarters on La Branch. The building has been sold and is slated for eventual demolition anyway.

Woodfill said callers to GOP headquarters threatened to physically interfere with the event.

He said Republicans will have a party Sunday at their own headquarters instead.

After Woodfill announced the sledgehammer event earlier this week, Democratic County Chairman Gerry Birnberg characterized it as a metaphor for destructive Republican policies.

The local Democratic Party had not planned any kind of counter-demonstration, although the AFL-CIO said it would conduct a peaceful rally nearby.

Birnberg said Friday that neither the Democratic Party nor the labor unions ever had any intention of interfering with the Republican event.

"I wanted it to go forward because I think that indicated metaphorically exactly the image that we think fits what Republicans have done in government," he said. "We had no thought of doing anything at all that would be in any way threatening."

"I think the Republicans recognized in retrospect that maybe this wasn't the best idea they ever had," he said.

The Democrats moved to new headquarters earlier this year.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  Aug. 28, 2003, 10:18PM

AFL-CIO offers organization without actually organizing

Hoping to increase its political clout, the AFL-CIO announced on Thursday that it was creating a novel organization for nonunion workers who agree with the labor movement on many issues and want to campaign alongside labor on those issues.

Federation officials said they hoped the new organization, to be called Working America, would attract more than 1 million members to lobby Congress and to join demonstrations on issues from raising the minimum wage to stopping the privatization of Social Security.

"There are millions of working people who would like to be part of the AFL-CIO's efforts for social justice and want a voice to speak out and work to change the direction of this country," John J. Sweeney, the federation's president, said at a news conference Thursday.

Labor unions plan to send hundreds of people door to door in working-class neighborhoods to ask sympathetic nonunion workers to join and to contribute money.

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations has begun pilot projects for the new group in Seattle and Cleveland. In Seattle, three people working for seven weeks signed up 1,200 nonunion workers to join Working America. About half of the new members made contributions, labor leaders said, with those who contributed giving an average of $16.

Union leaders say the idea has great potential because there are 16 million union members nationwide, representing 13 percent of the work force, while surveys have indicated that more than 40 million other Americans would like to join unions.

For years, union leaders have debated about setting up such a group. Advocates said it would expand labor's reach and strength, while opponents argued that it would distract from organizing efforts and was tantamount to admitting an inability to unionize many workers.

"They're looking for a cheap way to win strength," said Leo Troy, a labor expert at Rutgers University.

"Attempts like this are only a diversion of their resources. It only further weakens them because they are diverting manpower and money from organizing to something that won't necessarily produce results."


 Copyright 2003 New York Times

  Sept. 1, 2003, 9:43AM

Union forging a voice for immigrant workers


With sweat pouring down his face, Jose Benitez spends yet another afternoon at the window of a taco truck, urging the immigrant women inside these oven-like trailers to join forces and fight for a decent salary.

At night, the union organizer sidles up to bars and sips non-alcoholic beer as he tries to convince immigrant waitresses who wear tight miniskirts that they deserve health care coverage.

"We want to improve your lives," Benitez tells sisters Maria Luisa Villa and Celerina Villa as they prepare a torta for a Spanish-speaking customer at the Taqueria Muralla.

Muralla means "wall" in Spanish. Walls are what Benitez is busy trying to break down for Houston's undocumented workers, many of whom cling to their jobs, no matter how low-paying, because they believe they have no other options.

The Villa sisters, for example, are from a village in central Mexico and earn only about $48 a day for a job that can stretch from eight to 12 hours. But Celerina Villa, 41, said selling tacos, menudo and quesadillas from a trailer was the only job she could find because of her undocumented status.

Benitez, 45, who arrived in Houston from his native Honduras almost three decades ago, isn't just giving moral support to taco truck vendors and waitresses or trying to organize undocumented workers to provide them with basic rights such as health care and minimum wage salaries.

He's trying to organize immigrant workers -- a new trend in the labor movement -- to swell the ranks of organized labor.

The number of organized workers in the United States has fallen to 13.2 percent of the work force from 20.1 percent back in 1983, the first year the Bureau of Labor Statistics kept a tally.

To increase their membership, unions are aggressively targeting workers in the service industry, which also happens to be a big employer of immigrants.

"It's a logical next step for unions," said Nik Theodore, director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "These are segments of the economy that are growing rapidly, so it makes sense for unions to expand their horizons."

The movement makes sense, but it took some time for the union to recognize the changing demographics of the American work force, said Theodore.

Just a few years ago, union organizers shouted anti-immigrant rhetoric and many tried scare tactics, such as threatening deportation when dealing with undocumented workers. But these days, as the Hispanic work force continues to increase, unions are making every effort to reach out.

"You can't appreciate how big a sea change this is for the labor movement," said Andy Levin, director of the Voice @ Work campaign of the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. "I would say for some years, there was fear of creating a race to the bottom by organizing low-wage workers."

"Now the labor movement believes the way to bring everybody up is to make sure everybody is in the union," said Levin.

In celebration of Labor Day, labor leaders are outspoken in their support of immigration rights.

"We need immigration laws that reward hard work and keep families together," Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO, said in a news release. "Labor Day is a time to reflect on how valuable immigrants are to America's work force, as well as to our churches and communities."

Later this month, the union will participate in an Immigrant Worker's Freedom ride to Washington and New York City during which they will demand a road to citizenship for immigrants living in the United States.

They'll also push for justice in the workplace for immigrants -- a hot issue after last year's Supreme Court decision that barred an illegal immigrant from collecting damages when he was fired from his job for trying to organize a union.

In Houston, unions like the Working Families Association are not only reaching out to immigrant workers, they are even hiring Hispanic immigrants like Benitez and his Mexican co-worker Lorena Pelcastre, 31, to lead the grass-roots organization effort.

Benitez is a former janitor and bartender, while Pelcastre worked in a local Mexican restaurant before they teamed up earlier this summer to organize taco truck owners and workers.

So far, they've organized about 200 people in the taco business. Taco truck owner Maria Gaspar, 33, joined the union because she figures the group can better represent her before city regulators.

"Two is better than one," Benitez said in his pitch to recruit members. "One day, you're going to have the benefits that every normal worker has."

Taco truck worker Maria Luisa Villa, 44, joined the union because she wants health care coverage, which Benitez said workers can receive if they form a union and try to get a group plan.

Villa needs an eye exam and can't afford one, she said. She also wants a bigger salary, she said, as she closed the Bible she was reading.

Over at a cantina in the East End, Benitez tells waitresses about the union and talks Honduran politics with the women who are from his homeland.

Waitress Rosa Acosta, 43, said she also wants health care and she wants the union to help her become a legal resident of the United States. Because she sends money home to her four children in Honduras, she can't afford to go to a medical clinic.

She earns only about $250 a week working as a waitress at a bar, where at least 10 waitresses wear lots of makeup and work in revealing blouses. At least half the waitresses spend one Friday evening sitting close to male customers and talking to them. For every beer a customer purchases for the waitress to drink, the cantina charges $14 compared to the regular price of about $2 for a man's drink.

Organizing these waitresses at cantinas located in mostly Hispanic neighborhoods will likely prove more difficult. So far only about nine women have signed up for the union.

But, Benitez said, he will keep trying because these workers have rights just like any other member of society.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle