Oct. 16, 2003, 1:13AM

Latino coalition begins citizenship campaign Greater voice sought in 2004 election


A new coalition of local Latino groups wants to persuade legal immigrants to become U.S. citizens in time to vote in the 2004 presidential election.

Though the Houston Coalition for Immigrant Rights' initial goal is small -- they hope to file citizenship papers for 300 people at a workshop next week -- organizers see the movement growing.

"We believe the election next year is going to be very critical" in terms of immigration issues, said Adriana Cadena, with the Service Employees International Union, at a news conference Wednesday announcing the campaign.

Cadena noted that both Democrats and Republicans have wooed Latino voters in recent years. She asserted that President Bush will not win re-election unless he improves his numbers with Latino voters. In the 2000 race, Bush secured 35 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Many Latino immigrants stay in the United States for years with a green card, or permanent residency permit, which allows them to live and work legally, buy homes, and come and go as they choose.

Though the traditional next step after obtaining a green card is to become a U.S. citizen, some immigrants -- particularly Mexicans -- are reluctant to do so, Cadena said.

"It's hard for Mexicans (to become U.S. citizens) because Mexico is so close and they are so nationalistic," Cadena said.

Last year, more than a million people received green cards from the government, while slightly fewer than 600,000 became citizens, according to the government. About 28,000 immigrants got green cards in Houston; the number of citizens naturalized in Houston last year was not immediately available.

Cadena said the trend may be changing. The Mexican government now allows dual citizenship, which means Mexicans can become U.S. citizens without losing their Mexican legal standing.

Though the dual citizenship program has been slow to catch on over the past few years, Cadena said, it could be used to persuade Mexicans to become U.S. citizens.

"The key is education," she said.

The idea of encouraging immigrants to become voters is not new. California immigrant rights activists organized a huge citizenship campaign after voters there approved Proposition 187, which limited illegal immigrants' access to public benefits.

The Houston coalition hopes to push for issues such as legalization for the 8 million or more immigrants now living in the United States illegally, according to Nelson Reyes, director of GANO-CARECEN, a Central American political group based in the Gulfton area.

Reyes conceded that even Latino immigrant voters don't always support efforts to improve rights for illegal immigrants.

When immigrants cross into the United States illegally, they have nothing, Reyes noted. But by the time they are eligible to become citizens, they have typically lived here a decade or more, made some money and bought a home.

"They become more conservative," Reyes said. "Sometimes they even feel threatened by the cheap labor" from the illegal immigrants who continue to cross over.

The Houston coalition currently includes the Service Employees International Union, three Central American immigrant rights groups and a youth group.

Cadena hopes to expand the coalition to include more Mexican representation.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  Oct. 20, 2003, 11:56PM

Amid strikes, grocers point to Wal-Mart factor

Associated Press

CROSS LANES, W.Va. (AP) -- To find the root of the nation's three supermarket strikes, follow Judy Ranson's shopping cart.

An inveterate bargain hunter, Ranson used to chase down the best grocery deals at three stores: her local Kroger in Cross Lanes or down the road at a Fas Check in Dunbar and at Poca Supermarket in Poca.

Now she makes one trip a week, to the Wal-Mart Supercenter, which opened five years ago a mile and a half down the road and across Interstate 64 from the Kroger.

Ranson, 57, spends about $90 for herself and her husband. She estimates that she saves $40 to $50 off what she'd pay at the supermarket.

"Kroger's prices are too high on a lot of stuff," she said. "I figure $100 ought to be enough to feed anyone for a week."

Officials at Kroger and the nation's other dominant supermarket chains -- Ahold, Albertsons and Safeway -- cite competition from Wal-Mart Stores and other box stores moving into the grocery business as a reason to hold the line on labor costs.

Those costs include health care benefits that are the sticking point in United Food and Commercial Workers union strikes of 3,300 workers at 44 Kroger stores in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio; 70,000 workers at three Southern California chains; and 10,000 workers at three chains in Missouri.

Similar struggles are expected within the next six months as union contracts expire in the Phoenix and Washington areas.

"Box stores are a very real threat," said Archie Fralin, a Kroger spokesman in Roanoke, Va. "Their lower labor costs make it imperative for us to manage costs. That's just a reality."

Wal-Mart doesn't break out earnings by division, so it's hard to calculate how much food it sells. But analysts say in just 10 years it has become the biggest player in the grocery business, last year capturing anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent of the industry's $680 billion pie.

Traditional supermarket sales have dropped about 3 percent in the past year, estimates the Food Institute, a New Jersey-based trade group.

"The supermarket chains are still profitable, but executives see their market share down more than 5 percent over five years, and they're frightened," said George Whalin, president of Retail Management Consultants in San Marcos, Calif.

Lower labor costs for nonunion workers make up part of the advantage of stores like Wal-Mart. Including pension and health benefits, Kroger estimates it pays workers on average $6 an hour more in West Virginia than Wal-Mart. Burt Flickinger, managing partner of Strategic Resource Group in New York, says the difference in other parts of the country runs as high as $10 to $14 an hour for full-time workers.

At the Cross Lanes Kroger, striking UFCW workers say Wal-Mart's opening five years ago cost their store $100,000 in weekly receipts, between a third and a half of the store's income.

In response, workers say, Kroger has slashed the store's payroll from 86 to 45 full- and part-time workers.

"All we hear from management is, `Do more,' " said Kay Underwood, 49, a 29-year Kroger employee. "We did an employee survey, and the number of us on Paxil, Prozac, blood pressure medicines -- you name it -- has gone sky-high. We're killing ourselves for this company."

Fralin wouldn't comment on individual Kroger store sales.

But he said industry studies show that Wal-Mart often takes as much as $100,000 a week from existing supermarkets, and he hypothesized that a store losing that much would see labor costs cut similarly.

Wal-Mart insists labor costs are just one part of a low-price formula that includes better purchasing logistics and information systems.

Analysts agree that the Arkansas chain's famously efficient ordering and distribution systems give it an edge, as does its clout in pushing for low wholesale prices. They also say supermarkets have room to improve.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  Oct. 21, 2003, 12:22AM

Claims of fraud pull plug on union Teamster takeover shuts Houston local, just for one day


Allegations that its top two Houston officers participated in kickbacks and embezzled union money prompted the Teamsters international office to assume control of Local 988.

James P. Hoffa, Teamsters general president, determined the takeover was necessary after an independent oversight board alleged that Chuck Crawley, the local's president, and Dennis Bankhead, its secretary-treasurer, used union funds to buy barbecue pits for themselves, demanded kickbacks from vendors and pocketed cash from inflated invoices.

The three-man panel, appointed jointly by the Justice Department and the labor union, also accused another employee of the union, Marie Espinosa, of embezzlement.

Hoffa notified Local 988's 4,000 members of the takeover in a one-page letter posted Monday morning on the front door of the Teamsters union hall near Bush Intercontinental Airport.

"The charges are serious and, in my determination, jeopardize the interests of the local union," Hoffa's note stated.

He said he was placing the local under temporary emergency trusteeship and suspending Crawley and Bankhead.

The union's new hall was closed all day Monday as locksmiths changed out the locks. A note on the door said it would reopen today.

The 92-page report by the Independent Review Board alleged that Crawley demanded and received $20,000 from the contractor who installed a new telephone system.

The report also accused Crawley of writing checks for more than it cost to buy union logoT-shirts and stickers and pocketing the extra $2,995.

It also claimed that when the union bought six barbecue pits in 2001, Crawley and Bankhead each took direct delivery on a $800 mobile barbecue pit and changed the receipt to delete any reference to the two pits.

The panel's report said Crawley hired Espinosa in 2000 and that she submitted inflated invoices for beer and soda she bought with union funds for the grand opening of the hall, which was built with non-union labor because Local 988 officials believed union workers were too expensive.

According to the report, Espinosa charged the local $3,237 for sodas and beer that she did not supply for the three-day brisket, corn and beans bash.

The report also claims that Espinosa, who ran a cleaning company on the side, charged inflated rates to the union, her company's only customer.

When allegations of fraud first surfaced, Bankhead staged a "sham investigation" and later, when Espinosa was called in front of a federal grand jury to detail her business relationship, the union improperly paid her $2,467 legal bill, according to the report.

Crawley's attorney Byron Buchanan said Crawley welcomes the hearing and believes he will be exonerated.

The trusteeship is only temporary until the time of a hearing, Buchanan said. And once Crawley is cleared, he will be reinstated as a principal officer and will receive back pay, he said.

Bankhead did not return telephone calls to his home and neither Espinosa nor her lawyer could be reached for comment.

The allegations against the union, one of the largest in Texas, has attracted the attention of the FBI, the Labor Department's inspector general and the Justice Department.

Ed Gallagher, the assistant U.S. attorney who oversees the organized crime section in Houston, said his group will follow up on the board's report of allegations of wrongdoing, and is watching closely the FBI's investigation.

Gallagher has prosecuted several Teamster officials, including former Local 988 president Richard Hammond who was convicted in 1998 of 14 counts of embezzling union funds, bank fraud and tax evasion and sentenced to four years in prison.

Crawley, who had been hired as a business agent by the Teamsters trustee in 1995, replaced Hammond as president two years later. During his employment from 1997 to 2002, Crawley received an annual salary ranging between $60,935 and $100,397, according to the report.

Bankhead, also hired as a business agent in 1995, was elected secretary treasurer in 1997, according to the report. He earned between $51,595 and $92,252 between 1997 and 2002.

"We've been looking for this to happen," Wayne Seale, chairman of COOL 988, which stands for Corruption Out Of Local 988, a group that started about two months ago.

"We haven't got the representation that we deserve," said the Local 988 member and a long-haul driver, adding that he hopes the "alleged corrupted officials" are removed from the local.

The Teamsters will schedule a hearing to determine whether to remove Crawley and Bankhead permanently. The board can then conduct its own hearing if it's not pleased with the union's actions.

In the meantime, W.C. "Willie" Smith, president and business manager of Teamsters Local 891 in Jackson, Miss., will serve as temporary trustee.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle