Originally published by Houston Press Oct 30, 2003 ©2003 New Times, Inc. All
Behind the Happy Face Labor pains flare in a worker's fight with Wal-Mart
BY MICHAEL SERAZIO
Lee gestures while arguing with fellow employees at the rally.
Around 3:30 p.m., two men walk through the Wal-Mart parking lot just off Interstate 45 in Friendswood. A bald plainclothes police officer trails ten feet behind. As they near the entrance, a small crowd of employees scatters.
Once inside, the pair breeze past the shopping carts and ask a cashier to get someone in management. Brad Ulmer, the supercenter's manager, walks over with a grimace like he's trying to swallow shards of glass.
"I'm Richard Shaw. We're with the AFL-CIO." Shaw is, in fact, the county's AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer. His companion, E. Dale Wortham, is president. Hands are extended. Hands are shaken. "As you know, there's a union organizing drive going on in this store." Shaw lobs a pause in there.
"We're busy helping customers today," Ulmer responds, his jaw tightening.
"I know that. And I have an appeal for fairness agreement that we would like you all to sign--"
"Or consider signing--"
"So that the employees can organize free of intimidation, harassment and termination."
"We understand what you're saying -- but we cannot -- we cannot help you today. We're taking care of our customers. But appreciate it!" Ulmer withdraws politely. "Have a good one!" The labor leaders also cheerfully exit the store. This was to be expected.
About an hour later, the screaming starts. On a patch of grass beside the parking lot, a broad strain of union muscle has assembled: refinery workers, electricians, grocery store clerks and shaggy-haired, rabble-rousing professors. Shaw calls out chants from a bullhorn and the group roars its responses.
In the distance, Wal-Mart personnel trickle out from the store and look on with frozen faces. A handful of blue vests walks to the median opposite the protest and screeches chants of its own -- pro-Wal-Mart, anti-union chants. They wave cardboard signs with scrawled messages: "Wal-Mart, my home away from home!" and "I don't need anyone to talk for me!" This was not expected.
Wal-Mart big rigs start rumbling by, turning circles along the street. Houston mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner pops out of an SUV, shaking hands and squinting for snapshots, as the sun curves low in the late-afternoon sky. A few beefy union types shout across to the median: "Anybody over there know Jim Jones?!" Another: "Don't drink the Kool-Aid!" His buddies chuckle.
By now, a rugged black man has taken over the bullhorn, and the union crowd huddles around to listen. As he speaks, a gruff voice mutters in the back, "Man, he's got big balls, man."
Larry Lee never loved his job as a grocery stocker at Wal-Mart, but things were better than the "pure hell" he says it became. The 41-year-old started working at the Friendswood supercenter for $7.50 an hour in September 2001. He switched to the night shift after a year, working from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Some of his gripes sound like typical workplace bitching; others have a sharper edge. He claims that management would change their days off without checking first and that they prevented black employees from working together. He thinks he was unfairly passed over for promotions and raises, partly because of his race and partly because he didn't socialize with supervisors off the job. He also says that one co-worker started harassing him racially and calling him "nigger" without being reprimanded.
Marvin Diaz, a 19-year-old former night-shift worker, recalls the harassment. "They were always trying to take him. They were always trying to get me into it," says Diaz, who claims that he, too, was treated worse there than in any previous job. "When I saw all that happening, I wanted to transfer and they said, 'There's no way out of this.'"
According to company spokeswoman Christi Gallagher, Wal-Mart has an "open-door policy" that allows disgruntled associates to speak with any level of management if they have questions or concerns "without fear of retaliation." Yet when he tried to talk to management about disparities in pay and unprofessional treatment, Lee says, he got little response. In fact, he says things got even worse and that his supervisors piled more work on him as punishment. "A lot of associates have made complaints and they've isolated these people and gave these people a hard time and kind of put some fear in them, where you don't make a complaint anymore," says Lee. He sent a letter about the problems by certified mail to the district manager. It was refused and returned to him.
"That's when I decided to form this union," he says. He picked up union cards from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 408 and started passing them out to co-workers he thought were having the same problems. The cards authorize the UFCW to represent workers in collective bargaining. When they get at least 30 percent of the employees to sign up, the National Labor Relations Board can conduct an election for the entire workplace on the issue of unionization.
Store managers soon discovered the union drive, grilled workers about it and warned Lee he would face consequences if he continued. Lee says that one night they brought in a group of furious day-shift supervisors to intimidate the night crew. "When they came through those doors, it was almost like the army was coming in!"
From that point on, Lee felt as though he'd stepped into a Kafka novel. "They started monitoring me, watching the people who I socialized with. Like if you walked up to me and if you and I weren't even talking about union -- we may have been talking about something else -- they'd come and stand by us and ask, 'What are y'all doing?' and kind of break the conversation up," he says. "When I worked, they'd just stand in the aisle and watch me. I'd go on my breaks -- man, they'd follow me if I'd go to the restroom." He heard that a co-worker was making threats on his life because of the union talk and filed a complaint with Houston police, although an officer explained that because the threats weren't made directly to him, prosecutors probably wouldn't pursue them.
Hannette Lee, his wife, says the entire episode has drained the family and that they've even considered getting a gun for protection. She worked for Dillard's but has been on injury leave. They have six children between the ages of 14 and 21, and he says his $10.71 hourly wage is not enough to pay for Wal-Mart insurance, so they must rely on Medicaid.
Despite the alleged crackdown by Wal-Mart, he's passed out 15 union organizing cards and had seven signed and returned -- all from black employees. While the required number of sign-ups is likely to be disputed later, there may be another 140 or so still needed to authorize an election.
Those prospects look unlikely, although Lee also has been pursuing action on dual legal fronts. In August, he filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Wal-Mart violated his union organizing rights. This month, Lee also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, contending that black employees are paid less than others and that a co-worker continued to racially harass him.
Management at Lee's store referred Press inquiries to the Wal-Mart public relations department. Spokeswoman Gallagher says she is not familiar with Lee's case. "I can tell you that Wal-Mart does not use scare tactics against our associates during these union campaigns," she says. "I can tell you that a lot of times our associates do have problems and questions they might have received from the unions, and we have a support team to answer and give them factual information on that.
"We just simply don't believe unionization is right for Wal-Mart," Gallagher adds. "We just don't think it would improve our relationship with associates."
Wal-Mart, with more than a million workers and 3,400 stores across the nation, is no stranger to lawsuits. The labor relations board has received 666 charges against the company since 1995. Recent newspaper reports have noted dozens of lawsuits over sexual discrimination and unpaid overtime. According to Nelson N. Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara and author of State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, Larry Lee's situation is pretty typical.
"What they do is try to make life as uncomfortable as possible for this guy because they can't fire him," says Lichtenstein. He argues that Wal-Mart's strategy of low wages and high turnover creates a culture of anti-unionism -- that since most workers feel as though they're just passing through, they don't care enough to improve things. Of late, however, unions have redoubled their efforts.
"Unions are more vigorous today than 15 years ago, in part because they're desperate. They know they must organize or die," he says, adding that, overall, organized labor is still doing poorly. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2002, 13 percent of wage and salary workers were union members -- continuing a steady decline from 20 percent in 1983, the first year such statistics were tallied.
"What really happened was in 1998 when Wal-Mart announced their neighborhood markets format. This union had been, quite frankly, asleep at the switch," says Al Zack, assistant director of strategic programs at the United Food and Commercial Workers union. By heading into the unionized territory of Safeway and Kroger, Wal-Mart threatens their competitive edge. "They come in and say Wal-Mart is such a cheap bastard, we're going to take back your wages and benefits." He says that, at any given time, there are campaigns going on at two or three dozen stores, but that they reach a point and then die down.
"The problem is that you have a company that's so committed to keeping the union out that it's willing to break the law," contends Zack. "And the reason they are willing to break the law is that there are no penalties in labor law." Lichtenstein agrees that the labor board is pretty toothless and now exists only as a symbol.
"To organize Wal-Mart will require the sort of social movement we last saw with the civil rights movement," he argues. "And the obstacles are just as great."
|Nov. 12, 2003, 1:35AM
Teachers group says principals failing to reassign violent kids
By MELANIE MARKLEY
Nearly four years after former HISD Superintendent Rod Paige ordered schools to expel violent students, a teachers union president said principals again are keeping kids in class who assault and terrorize teachers.
Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon said Tuesday the union will survey Houston Independent School District teachers about violence in their schools in hopes Superintendent Kaye Stripling will take action against principals who refuse to send what the union says are dangerous students to alternative schools.
"If HISD will do nothing to make their schools safe, then the union will take the responsibility of doing our part," she said, adding that for principals who consistently fail to expel violent students, the union will seek to suspend or revoke their professional certificates.
A similar survey conducted by HFT prompted Paige in 2000 to send a memo to principals, ordering them to remove students who commit serious criminal acts. In that 2000 survey, 31 percent of the teachers said students committing such acts were "rarely" expelled.
Fallon, who for years had complained about violence in schools, praised Paige for taking steps to stop it, including contracting with a private alternative school to accept disruptive kids.
However, Fallon said many principals again are refusing to remove dangerous students. She said schools have a financial incentive not to remove students before Nov. 1 because they could lose funding if kids are sent to an alternative school. The official enrollment count is taken at the end of October.
HISD spokesman Terry Abbott said principals districtwide sent 498 students to alternative schools before Nov. 1 this year because of bad behavior.
Abbott said schools receive $15 a day for every student at their school, and "no principal in their right mind is going to keep a dangerous kid in their school for $15."
A federal appeals court on Friday upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit alleging that dangerous students were being kept at a middle school to avoid losing funding. The suit was filed by the family of Samuel Avila, 13, who was fatally stabbed in the head with a screwdriver during what police and school authorities called a gang-related fight Oct. 20, 1999.
Fallon said Tuesday she has received calls and e-mails from teachers who say they have been assaulted or threatened by students who were permitted to stay at the school in violation of state law.
Sterling High School teacher Robert Foster, 69, said a student in his combined physics and chemistry class recently lunged at him and threatened him physically. The student was suspended, he said, but he has been given no assurances the student will be removed permanently from the school.
"I don't know if he is going to show up in my classroom or not," Foster said.
Abbott said the student is being reassigned to an alternative school.
"The school did exactly what it should have done," he said, "and the kid is not going to be back to the school."
Fallon's concerns were raised days after the New York Times said HISD was under-reporting crime statistics to the state. Stripling said HISD did nothing wrong because Texas schools are required to report disciplinary actions, not alleged crimes, to the state. State officials agreed.
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
Nov. 15, 2003, 9:17PM
CAMPAIGN NOTEBOOK Runoff bids hit milestonesDebates set in mayoral race
By JOHN WILLIAMS
·The Harris County AFL-CIO and its affiliated organization, the Latino Labor Leadership Council of Southeast Texas, endorsed these candidates:
Bill White for Houston mayor.
Annise Parker for controller.
Ronald Green for City Council At-large Position 4.
M.J. Khan for District F.
Adrian Garcia for District H.
Arthur Gaines for Houston Independent School District Board District IV.
Herlinda Garcia for Houston Community College System Board District 3.
The labor organizations endorsed both candidates for council At-large Position 3 (Peter Brown and Shelley Sekula-Gibbs) and for HISD District III (Michael Gomez and Manuel Rodriguez).
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
|Nov. 20, 2003, 12:33AM
To critics, trade negotiation is about jobs
By JENALIA MORENO
MIAMI -- Houstonian Sam West traveled through a torrential storm Monday to make sure his voice was one of thousands heard protesting a hemispheric free-trade agreement.
West, a member of the United Steelworkers of America, is one of the 20,000 people expected here today to protest the Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations.
And with about 115 steel and chemical workers from the Houston area joining the protest, today's march should be one of the week's largest.
Miami officials are taking no chances that protesters will interfere with negotiations, as demonstrators did at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, which became known as the Battle of Seattle.
Police began donning their riot gear Tuesday to prepare for the numerous marches, and each day security has been beefed up as today's ministers' meeting approached.
Although the protests may draw media attention, most foreign trade experts will be watching Brazil and the United States to see if the two trade giants can put aside their differences long enough to work out a treaty to take effect in January 2005.
On Wednesday, it appeared the two sides were doing just that.
Negotiators announced a draft declaration that would guide their bosses, the trade ministers, during their two days of negotiations. But in this marriage of 34 countries, this sort of prenuptial agreement allowed the partners to be less committed than others.
The declaration didn't say which parts of the trade agreement members could opt out. But in the months leading up to the negotiation, the United States refused to give in to Brazil's demand of cutting agricultural subsidies. And Brazil refused to give in to U.S. demands on investment and intellectual property rights.
"I'm skeptical about any FTAA agreement that establishes only a minimum baseline of commitments for all participants," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a prepared release. "This in effect could allow some countries to opt out of higher obligations that other nations would assume."
The declaration has been dubbed "FTAA Lite" because critics say it's a scaled-back trade agreement.
But U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick dismissed that criticism.
"What we're trying to have here is a comprehensive agreement," he said. "I don't know how people describe that as lite."
Officials from Canada, Chile and Mexico, which already have free trade agreements with the United States, wanted this trade deal to include similar standards.
"We would have liked to see a more ambitious FTAA," said Fernando Canales, Mexico's economy secretary.
Proponents of the trade deal counter that the accord will create jobs and make goods $814 cheaper annually for an American family of four.
But that is not reassuring to unemployed workers, West said.
"If you don't have a job, what difference does it make if it's less expensive?" West asked.
Workers like West frown on trade agreements that don't include protections for U.S. workers. He said trade policies drove U.S. plants to close and relocate abroad in recent years, and there's been an increase in imports, reducing steel prices.
The Bush administration reacted to those complaints last year when it marked up prices of steel imports by up to 30 percent. But last week, the World Trade Organization told the United States those tariffs were illegal.
That ruling disappointed Holman Thompson, who represents 3,000 steelworkers in Houston and East Texas who make pieces that go into such wide-ranging products as aircraft batteries, human joint replacements and roof shingles.
Such dumping has forced several U.S. steel companies to declare bankruptcy, he said.
Since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994, the Houston area has lost about 3,000 jobs as plants have closed, he said.
"In the Houston area, we have lost and were steadily losing plants," said Holman, who was an electrician for a Houston-based pipe-making company before he became a union representative.
West is a crane operator at the same company where Holman once worked. While that company has not cut jobs, some union workers did give up overtime pay for three months so the company could stay competitive after an increase in steel imports, he said.
Those who will march today say that trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, have devastated the U.S. manufacturing sector.
For example, they claim Texas alone lost 165,000 manufacturing jobs between 1998 and this year.
But proponents of the treaty say manufacturing output increased 44 percent, and wages went up in the 1990s.
"In the 10 years since NAFTA, U.S. manufacturing wages more than doubled the rate of increase over the previous decade," Secretary of Commerce Don Evans said here Wednesday.Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
Area auto dealer awaits labor vote
Technicians could be first in Texas to have a union shop
11:49 PM CST on Friday, November 14, 2003
By TERRY BOX / The Dallas Morning News
Technicians at Payton-Wright Ford in Grapevine have notified the National Labor Relations Board that they intend to unionize the dealership's service department.
The techs formerly called mechanics are working with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to organize the service department and hope to schedule an election in December, said Mark Ward, one of the organizers.
If it succeeds, Payton-Wright would become the first dealership in Texas with a union shop. A similar union attempt failed last year at a Toyota dealership in Houston.
"Texas does not have one shop that is organized," said Mr. Ward, a master tech at a Ford dealership in Eufala, Okla., who works in his spare time on the union issue. "We are getting ready to do a nationwide push. I said, 'Let's test the waters in Texas. Let's take the biggest fish first.' "
Payton-Wright is owned by AutoNation Inc., the largest new-car retailer in the United States. Although the IAM is interested in organizing car dealerships partly to offset a decline in aerospace and aircraft workers it did not target Payton-Wright, said Mark Hammond, an IAM organizer in Texas.
"These guys picked up the phone and called us," Mr. Hammond said.
An AutoNation spokesman confirmed that a letter of intent has been filed with the labor board, but declined to comment further. The company is dealing with similar tech attempts to organize at two of its dealerships in southern California.
"AutoNation has a policy of not discussing these matters publicly," said Marc Cannon, vice president of corporate communications.
Mr. Ward said Payton-Wright has 32 techs, and three-fourths of them support the effort to organize.
Like technicians at other Ford dealerships, many have been unhappy since Ford cut back on what it pays dealerships to make warranty repairs.
In an attempt to cut costs, Ford began in 1998 to reduce the allowed repair time on some warranty work which reduced some techs' wages.
For example, Ford originally estimated that head gaskets on its 4.6- and 5.4-liter V8 engines could be repaired in 7.9 hours. Once a repair time has been established, that is what Ford pays even if the procedure actually takes longer. After protests from Mr. Ward and others, Ford raised the time allowed for head-gasket repair to 10.5 hours last year.
Techs at Payton-Wright are also angry about their spiraling health care costs and want a pension instead of a 401(k) retirement plan, Mr. Ward said.
"These guys need a union," Mr. Ward said. "Ford has cut our warranty time. Health care is outrageous. With the decreases in revenue, it was time to push to another level. This is a trade that needs to go to the next level."
Some techs can still make $70,000 or $80,000 a year, he said, but most average about $40,000 annually and have at least $30,000 invested in their tools.
Area dealers are watching the Payton-Wright situation with interest. Well-run dealerships can generate enough revenue from their service departments to cover 80 to 100 percent of the entire business' overhead, said Drew Campbell, president of the New Car Dealers Association of Metropolitan Dallas.
"The service department is a huge piece of a dealer's overall success," he said.
In September, partly in response to the union movement, Ford established a 40-member tech committee to advise the company on warranty-repair times, said Glenn Ray, a spokesman for the Ford Customer Service Division.
"We are neutral on this issue," Mr. Ray said. "But it is fair to say we're taking a hard look at the working conditions of technicians. We're listening. It's a dialogue."
If the union prevails at Payton-Wright, techs at other area dealerships will seek organization, Mr. Hammond predicted.
"We've been dealing with a lot of techs, and it seems like they're all waiting for the first one to happen," he said.