Aug. 31, 2003, 10:23PM

Immigrants are stars of celebration AFL-CIO hosts event for holiday


Threats of flooding and arrest kept away some who wanted to attend the Harris County AFL-CIO Labor Day celebration Sunday in Pasadena, but those who made it were enthusiastic enough to make up for the absentees.

The stars of the celebration were a group of immigrant workers, all wearing red, white and blue, who in late September will take part in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, boarding buses in Houston that will take them through some 80 cities before they arrive in Washington, D.C., in October.

The message the Freedom Bus Riders will carry across the nation and to the Capitol was summed up Sunday by Maria Elena Durazo, a vice president of the Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees International Union in California and national coordinator of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

"We're tired of hearing elected leaders say they support labor but when they get up there, they get scared and run to the right," Durazo told the gathering.

Pointing out that everyone in the United States with the exception of Native Americans is descended from immigrants, Durazo brought the crowd to its feet by saying, "Immigrants have built America, and they're going to continue to build America alongside other workers."

Durazo noted the achievements of the black civil rights movement and said, "What they taught us was, civil rights don't belong to any one group, they belong to all of us.

"When unions collaborate with immigrants and civil rights leaders and church leaders ... brothers and sisters, we've got power, and they can't stop us," Durazo told the cheering crowd.

Also starring at the celebration were senators Mario Gallegos, John Whitmire and Rodney Ellis, three of the 11 Texas senators in exile in Albuquerque, N.M., to stop a Republican congressional redistricting plan, and under threat of arrest should they return to their home state.

The three addressed the crowd briefly by means of a cellular telephone held up to the microphone and, although little of their comments could be heard or understood, drew a rousing reception from the group.

Emcee Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO Council, encouraged the crowd to make noise for the exiled senators to hear "because it's lonely out there in Albuquerque."

U.S. Rep. Gene Green praised the Texas 11 and those at the Sunday event, saying he hopes such events will remind the nation "what Labor Day is all about."

Green said the Bush administration talks a lot about how important labor is, "and yet I would like to hear what they're going to do about it."

Green said free trade agreements with other countries have meant a loss of jobs to countries where labor is less expensive. Now, he said, "Every local we have is being pushed to the wall to give back their benefits" so employers can compete with foreign enterprises.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  Aug. 31, 2003, 8:37PM

Advocacy group is cookin' again


THE SAVORY AROMA of sweet Italian sausage, Roma tomatoes and garlic spilled out the front door of the Ebenezer United Methodist Church last Thursday night.

Inside, the Rev. Rhenel Johnson was dishing her renowned spaghetti to about two dozen area residents and others who eagerly emptied the deep pot holding her special sauce.

As they ate, Johnson explained her recipe -- but she didn't reveal her culinary secrets.

Instead, Johnson helped deliver a serious recipe for improving the surrounding Independence Heights neighborhood and dozens like it across the city.

"We can do this if we get involved in politics," Johnson said.

Or, as the Rev. John W. Bowie of the neighboring True Light Missionary Baptist Church explained, "If we elect people into office, they are obliged to us."

The meeting at Johnson's Church was one of many across Houston during the past year as part of a revitalization of the The Metropolitan Organization.

History of influence is evident Johnson and others have been holding small dinners, coffees and other intimate meetings to attract new blood into an organization that once played an influential role in the Houston area.

TMO is one of more than 60 organizations across the world founded under the umbrella of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Chicago-based group established in 1940 by Bishop Bernard Shiel of the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese, retailer Marshall Field, Kathryn Lewis (daughter of labor leader John L. Lewis) and Saul Alinsky.

Essentially, the groups put neighborhood advocacy into a network of churches, synagogues, mosques, unions, schools and environmental, housing and health groups.

In cities including San Antonio and Birmingham, Ala., the IAF affiliates with different names are legendary for holding elected officials' feet to the fire.

And during the the 1970s and 1980s, TMO was an important player in local issues in Houston, though not as influential as in some other cities.

The group rallied support for various candidates and issues, then sought returns. For example, TMO pushed through changes in the Hardy Toll Road to reduce its impact on low-income neighborhoods in the 1980s, when Harris County was building support for the project.

Recruitment showing promise Jerry Wood, who was an aide to former Mayor Kathy Whitmire in the 1980s, said TMO played an important role in helping neighborhoods get public works projects to improve drainage and address other problems.

"You never got the feeling, like with other organizations, that the professional staff was manipulating the process," Wood said. "They were very up-front. They did what they said they would and never tried to ambush you."

In the 1990s, TMO narrowed its focus to education and housing. Along the way, it lost steam and membership. Politicians paid less attention to the group than in the past. TMO, to many, had become an afterthought.

But during the past two years or so, the IAF has refocused on Houston. Recruitment sessions like the one Johnson conducted last week are paying dividends. TMO meetings that once attracted 50 members now draw 1,000.

TMO also is targeting several dozen voting precincts in an effort to raise turnout in this year's city elections by 15 percent over 2001.

And the group is paying more attention to the accountability sessions it conducts for political candidates. A trademark of the organization is that it doesn't let candidates get away with evasive answers. Session organizers present a series of questions and ask for direct "yes" and "no" responses.

TMO has such a session planned for 3 p.m. Sept. 21 at Park Place United Methodist Church, 3827 Broadway.

The group's big issues this year will be education, health care, law enforcement, immigration, flood protection and transportation.

"What we want to do is re-establish good relationships with our elected officials -- and the best place to start is with the elections," Johnson said.

The re-emergence of TMO comes at a time when some residents sense a general lack of leadership in Houston.

There are many reasons. The city's business sector has been busy warding off a sluggish economy and not paying as much attention to municipal issues as in the past. The city's term limits interrupt relationships civic organizations otherwise might build with elected officials.

One evidence of the desire for leadership was the creation of Blueprint Houston, a grass-roots organization that is trying to get city leadership to focus on growth and other issues.

"People are craving for direction and involvement right now," said Rice University sociologist Stephen Kleinberg. "There is an overwhelming desire by citizens to take part in the shaping of the new economy and the new Houston."

John Williams' e-mail address is [email protected]


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  Sept. 2, 2003, 11:01PM

Democrats scramble to block bill Labor flexing muscle on overtime changes Labor flexing muscle on overtime changes

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Democrats and their labor allies renewed their drive Tuesday to block proposed Bush administration rules that opponents say would cost 8 million workers their overtime pay.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he would propose an amendment to a spending bill to derail the proposed regulations and predicted he would prevail. A similar bid by House Democrats lost in July 213-210 after the Bush administration threatened a veto.

In addition, the AFL-CIO said it was beginning to run television ads nationally and in pivotal states aimed at pressuring senators to support Harkin's provision. Labor has opposed the administration proposal, while numerous business groups have lobbied for it.

Harkin said he believed he had three to six Republican votes, which could be decisive in the Senate, where the GOP is in control by a narrow margin. He told reporters that President Bush and his supporters would suffer political consequences should they persist in trying to redefine which workers would qualify for time-and-a-half pay after a workweek has exceeded 40 hours.

"He may satisfy some of his business friends, but he's going to lose middle America," Harkin said.

Republican aides said the vote seemed likely to be close, and they expected a clearer picture to emerge this week. The Senate reconvened Tuesday after its four-week summer recess, but few lawmakers were around.

Harkin conceded that one difficulty he faced was making sure enough Democratic senators are in town for the vote, which may not come until next week. Four of them are running for president and often are on the road campaigning.

The rules could take effect by early next year, unless a law is enacted to kill them. The proposal changes definitions of who qualifies for overtime, with the Labor Department estimating the extra pay would be eliminated for at least 644,000 white-collar workers who now receive it.

The administration, which proposed the regulations in March, says they represent a needed update to rules first laid out in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Republicans say the proposal would clarify confusing regulations and reduce an increasing number of lawsuits by workers seeking overtime pay.

The administration rules also would raise -- from the current $8,060 to $22,100 -- the annual pay below which workers must be paid overtime. The Labor Department says up to 1.3 million additional low-income employees would gain overtime under that proposal, and Harkin's amendment would let that change take place.

The AFL-CIO said its ad would run this week nationally on CNN and in Maine, Ohio and Missouri.

Maine is home to moderate GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Sens. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Christopher Bond, R-Mo., are up for re-election next year.

The 30-second spot depicts an aerospace worker, who complains that loss of overtime would hurt his retirement plans while helping big businesses.

Harkin planned to offer the amendment to a bill providing $137.6 billion for next year's labor, education and health programs. That bill also is a battleground for Democratic attempts to spend more for schools than Bush and the GOP have proposed.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle