Oct. 22, 2003, 12:47AM

Union local back in business as other officials shake heads


Teamsters Local 988 reopened its union hall Tuesday and tried to resume normal operations, a day after being taken over by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

But for some members of organized labor, Tuesday was anything but normal.

"It's painful for the rest of the unions," said E. Dale Wortham, president of the Harris County AFL-CIO. "We all get painted by the same brush."

The takeover was on the lips of just about every union member he talked to Tuesday.

James P. Hoffa, the union's international president, ordered the takeover and suspended the local's two top officers after an independent review panel alleged that Chuck Crawley, the local's president, Dennis Bankhead, its secretary-treasurer, and Marie Espinosa, an employee, embezzled union money and engaged in kickback schemes.

The Independent Review Board alleged that Crawley received $20,000 from the contractor that installed a new telephone system and that he wrote checks for more than it cost to buy union logo T-shirts and stickers and pocketed an extra $2,995.

It also claimed that when the union bought barbecue pits in 2001, Crawley and Bankhead each took direct delivery of $800 mobile barbecue pits and changed the receipt to delete any reference to the extra equipment.

The panel 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 nonunion labor because Local 988 officials believed union workers were too expensive.

Wortham said he didn't want to assume anyone was guilty of financial mismanagement and worries it may be a witch hunt. If that's the case, he asked, "Who's next?"

On the other hand, if the allegations of kickbacks and personal enrichment are true, it casts other unions in a bad light.

"There is no good outcome," he said.

Teamsters Local 988, which represents 4,000 long-haul truckers as well as local cargo truckers, dropped out of the AFL-CIO in Harris County about four years ago.

Richard Shaw said he was also peppered with questions when he met with a group of educators Tuesday.

"In terms of money, it's not Enron," said Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in Harris County.

But it's "pure ugliness" and a disappointment, he said.

Ed Gallagher, the assistant U.S. attorney who oversees the organized crime section in Houston, said he hopes the takeover serves as a wake-up call to other union officials in Houston.

Any time a trusteeship is imposed on a union -- especially a union as big as Teamsters Local 988 -- it should remind all union officials to keep their members' interests above all others, Gallagher said.

"If there is any nervousness, it's good," he said, because it will cause them to think twice.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  Oct. 22, 2003, 1:29AM

Worker rights a tricky issue Illegal conditions a concern


Central Americans are pushing to add terms to a free-trade deal that covers immigration and workers' rights, but so far U.S. negotiators have spurned their effort to raise these issues.

Based on past trade agreements, this will be a hard sell.

This week, about 300 diplomats are in Houston negotiating in the eighth of nine rounds to craft a Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA. The yearlong negotiations are expected to result in the first regional accord the United States has signed since the North American Free Trade Agreement, which included Canada and Mexico.

NAFTA did not include an accord allowing more immigrants to enter legally, and it is likely that CAFTA will avoid the tricky issue as well. Nearly a decade after the agreement went into effect, Mexico continues to try to convince U.S. politicians to allow more Mexicans to work legally in the United States.

Negotiators from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua aren't demanding changes in U.S. laws that could allow a flood of immigrants to enter legally. But they do want U.S. representatives to agree to protect Central Americans who are working either legally or illegally in the United States. They want to ensure that Central Americans receive the same pay as Americans for comparable jobs and that they work in the same conditions.

"Illegality allows you to get paid less and have worse working conditions," said one Central American negotiator who did not want to be identified.

And negotiators want to make sure that Central American workers can organize unions in the United States.

Worker rights are a concern because of a 2002 Supreme Court decision that said illegal immigrants don't have the right to collect back pay if they are illegally fired for trying to organize a union.

Except for situations like those, immigrants working in the United States typically are protected by U.S. labor laws, said Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Labor William Clatanoff. For example, immigrant workers must at least earn minimum wage, he said.

He said negotiators were working on a trade agreement and not on changes in U.S. immigration laws. But he did not confirm or deny that U.S. negotiators this week had rejected a proposal by Central Americans to protect rights of Central Americans working in the United States.

Another immigration deal proposed by Central Americans was that the United States allow 1,500 professionals such as accountants, doctors and lawyers to temporarily work here. The recently negotiated trade agreements with Chile and Singapore allowed 1,400 and 5,400 professionals, respectively, to temporarily work in the United States.

But labor leaders oppose these annual visas, especially when Americans are having trouble finding jobs.

A member of the U.S. delegation said migratory issues are in the hands of Congress, not the trade negotiators.

Central Americans also want U.S. professions to recognize Central American training.

Many Central American professionals are working in the United States, but because their university degrees or training are not recognized, they take lower-level jobs, some even working as maids, said Luis Alberto Gutierrez, an auditor from El Salvador who is working as a consultant for the Central American delegation.

"They are here legally, but they can't work in their field," Gutierrez said.

Meanwhile, demonstrators opposed to CAFTA protested again Tuesday in front of the Westin Galleria. Police reported that demonstrations were peaceful and uneventful.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  [note the Enco contractor who could not figure out the differenece between laborers and electricians - Shaw]

Oct. 22, 2003, 11:42PM

Wage watchers get hands-on Monitors make sure workers get all pay they have coming


 GOVERNMENT contractors that don't pay city-mandated wages to construction workers view the violation the way lead-footed drivers justify speeding.

Chances are they won't get caught, and if they do, the fine won't hurt that much.

But that attitude may be starting to change in Houston under a new approach by city government to crack down on prevailing wage scofflaws.

Instead of relying solely on four city staff members working out of City Hall to monitor compliance with laws on the prevailing wage -- a wage set by the city that companies agree to pay workers on government projects -- the city has put two full-time monitors on job sites.

In the last 18 months, the two, working primarily on the George R. Brown Convention Center expansion and the Hilton Americas-Houston convention hotel, have enabled the city to assess contractors $195,000 in fines and back wages.

By contrast in the past year, the other four city staffers have turned up only a handful of violations.

Responsible for monitoring 400 projects, their efforts resulted in workers receiving $200 in back wages and contractors being assessed $2,000 in fines.

Contractors who fail to comply can be charged $60 per worker per day for violations.

"It does make a difference -- a big difference -- for someone to be on site," said Bernard Porter, the city's manager of contract compliance.

What changed?

The AFL-CIO in Harris County finally got a toehold, in a deal it struck with the Convention Center Hotel Corporation Board, when the city agreed to hire two on-site compliance officers to oversee the construction of the convention hotel and George R. Brown Convention Center.

No longer bound to a desk at City Hall, the new compliance officers are catching the "ghost workers" -- the employees who work at the job but don't appear on any payrolls -- as well as making sure journeymen aren't classified as lower-paid helpers.

But even finding out how much the 5,300 hotel construction employees and the 2,000 convention center employees were earning wasn't easy, compliance officers Janice Ruley and Tony Orta said. At first, employees were scared to talk.

"But we were able to prove we could get the money they deserve, so now they call us," Ruley said.

Orta, who looks like any electrician on the job, said they sometimes clip business cards to a flier listing prevailing wages and hand them out when employees arrive at work. He also hangs around the lunch wagons drinking coffee and eating breakfast, meeting the workers out of sight of the foreman.

But the ultimate weapon is that the prime contractor is responsible for paying the correct wage.

Ruley, a journeyman electrician by trade who is called "ma'am" by most on the construction site, said she lets the general contractors know, "You have to understand: We're your new best friends."

Turner Construction Co., the general contractor on the Hilton Hotel project, has apparently taken that to heart.

While officials from Turner did not return repeated calls, Ruley and Orta said they are invited by Turner to each new subcontractor's employee orientation, which gives the officers a chance to lay down the rules on prevailing wages.

And the subcontractors took notice when word got around that United Forming, which did the concrete work for the Hilton Hotel, shelled out about $4,849 in back wages and $19,740 more in penalties in April 2002.

The contractors realized that Houston was serious about the underpayment of wages, she said.

Doug Karn, district manager for United Forming's Texas operations, said the company ended up paying more than $50,000 in extra wages when the compliance officers reclassified many of the employees to higher-paid positions.

The definitions of the various crafts weren't very clear in the construction documents, he said.

"We understand they make the rules, and we're fine with it," Karn said.

He said once the rules were spelled out, the company quickly paid the back wages and penalties and readjusted its payroll to reflect the reclassifications.

Jeffrey Ward remembers getting introduced to Orta during his employee orientation as the person to go to if he has questions about his wages.

So when Orta came by one day while Ward was doing electrical work for Enco Systems at the Hilton, he mentioned he wasn't getting any benefit pay.

Orta looked into the situation and saw that Ward should have been earning $23.90 an hour instead of the $19.06 he was receiving.

In December, Ward got a check for about $600 and then a month later, got another check for $1,600.

And in the spring, Ward's co-workers also received checks to compensate them for the wages they should have received -- about $30,000 in all, recalled Orta.

The problem was that probationary workers, those who had worked for fewer than 90 days, weren't receiving benefit pay, Orta said. But the city doesn't recognize a probationary period, and benefits -- or an hourly equivalent -- must be paid from the first hour.

Several other contractors have made the same error and have had to repay benefits as high as $5,000 per employee, he said.

Orta and Ruley said they still have to give Enco officials "friendly reminders" about paying their employees correctly.

Steve Horn, vice president of Enco Systems, estimated that 80 percent of the $30,000 in back wages stemmed from a reclassification of workers from skilled labor to electricians.

It was a difference in perspective, he said, and the company voluntarily agreed to pay the higher wages when the compliance officers pointed it out.

The other 20 percent was for back benefits, Horn said.

It was a slip-up the company corrected.

As for the newest back wages, Horn said it was $200 for pay stemming from setting up surveillance cameras to protect against theft on the construction site.

"We try to play by the rules," he said, but some are very complicated.

"We don't know about a violation until someone points it out," he said, adding that he was pleased no penalties were assessed.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle