Feb. 24, 2004, 11:17PM

Local union leader downplays Paige's 'terrorist' remark


National Education Association President Reg Weaver said it was "not a laughing matter" when U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige recently called the nation's largest teacher's union as a "terrorist organization."

But Gayle Fallon, longtime president of Houston's largest teacher's union, said Tuesday that Paige's comment would likely have caused laughter, not widespread furor, had he said something similar while at the helm of the Houston Independent School District.

"That's just Rod's sense of humor," said Fallon, the Houston Federation of Teachers president who frequently butted heads with Paige over teacher salaries and other issues but developed a friendly relationship. "God knows, he's come out with worse remarks to me, but we both knew he was joking."

Paige made the remark while speaking Monday to the nation's governors at a private White House meeting. The NEA and the rival American Federation of Teachers quickly condemned the comment. Fallon's organization is an affiliate of the AFT.

Paige later apologized, saying the comment was "a bad joke" and "an inappropriate choice of words" and was aimed at the union organization, not at the teachers it represents. The NEA asked President Bush to fire him but the White House on Tuesday said his job was safe.

Paige has had a sometimes volatile relationship with the NEA over President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, an educational reform package that emphasizes testing and school accountability. The NEA has been critical of the law, saying it is vastly underfunded and relies too heavily on test results.

The president of HISD's NEA affiliate could not be reached Tuesday. But Donna New Haschke, president of the state affiliate, the Texas State Teachers Association, said she was stunned by Paige's remark.

"I just don't think these days you can joke about terrorism in any form, especially when you are talking about the nation's school teachers," said Haschke, a former Clear Creek middle school teacher.

Fallon's relationship with Paige wasn't always smooth. In 1995, the year after he became superintendent, she sued district officials, including Paige, and accused them of "union-busting."

Paige often voiced his feelings of frustration with unions and union tactics. He appointed his own ad hoc teachers' advisory committee as a way to get input from rank-and-file teachers. He often noted that most teachers weren't members of unions, and he believed unions too often postured for the sole sake of building membership.

Paige, however, talked frequently with Fallon as well as with representatives of the Congress of Houston Teachers and the Houston Classroom Teachers Association, both nonunion organizations.

Steve Antley, a social studies teacher at Marshall Middle School who also is president of the Congress of Houston Teachers, said he believes Paige's "unfortunate choice of words" reflected his frustration with the opposition he has been getting to the president's education reforms.

"I would never defend his choice of words like that," he said, "but I think sometimes when people are frustrated they kind of shoot from the hip ... "


 Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle


Feb. 27, 2004, 12:22AM

Tentative deal in grocery strike

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES Negotiators for three supermarket chains and grocery clerks reached a tentative contract agreement Thursday, creating hope that the nation's longest supermarket strike would end and send 70,000 financially strapped employees back to work.

Greg Denier, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, declined to disclose the details.

The 4 1/2 -month strike inconvenienced millions of shoppers in Southern California and led to hundreds of millions of dollars in losses for the chains, which had taken a stand against rising employee health costs.

Officials with the union must submit the contract to members for approval. Voting could begin as early as today.

The strike targeted Albertsons; Kroger, which owns Ralphs; and Safeway, the parent firm of Vons and Pavilions, affecting 859 stores.

Negotiations had been deadlocked over the cost and scope of health benefits and a proposed two-tier wage system.

Union leaders framed the dispute as a national bellwether in the fight to preserve affordable health care insurance for the working class.

Some shoppers saw the clerks as low-skilled workers who had enjoyed free health benefits for too long. Others put the blame on the supermarkets, criticizing their move to cut labor costs.

  Feb. 27, 2004, 12:03AM

Hotel, laundry-based unions going to merge

Associated Press

WASHINGTON Two unions representing hotel and restaurant employees and retail, textile and laundry workers are merging to create a single organization with 440,000 members.

The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, called HERE, and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, known as UNITE, announced the merger Thursday.

"This merger substantially increases our ability to fight for the rights of our members and the tens of thousands of new members that we will represent in the future, and to make sure that America's working families share in the success of the world's richest nation," said UNITE President Bruce Raynor.

The partnership pairs two similar unions that represent a large number of minority and immigrant workers in the service sector.

It also spells opportunity: UNITE's focus on laundry and retail distribution workers fits nicely with HERE's hotels and restaurants and their need for linens and uniforms.

Unions are struggling for new members in a difficult organizing environment.

Membership is at an all-time low, with just 12.9 percent of the work force belonging to a union last year.

That's down from 13.3 percent in 2002, according to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the private sector alone, only 8.2 percent of workers were union members last year.