May 29, 2004, 9:47PM

College grads: back the maids


Congratulations, Class of 2004. You've worked hard, partied hard and now head out into the world.

When you enrolled in college we promised that if you earned a good education, you would be able to make a good living.

But now computer tech jobs are being exported to India.

A major oil company recently sent 300 accounting jobs to the Philippines.

Reuters news service e-mails corporate filings to India for reporters to analyze and summarize, a job that used to be done in the United States.

And a Boston hospital has been e-mailing X-rays to U.S.-trained radiologists in India.

So that promise we made when you were freshmen is not one on which we can deliver -- unless we start thinking in new ways.

Some jobs can't easily be exported. Some of these jobs were the topic at the Houston City Council meeting this week.

Jaime Flores, an organizer for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International, wanted to flex a little political muscle. He's in early stages of negotiations with folks from Hilton for a contract for maids, bellhops, restaurant workers and other employees.

As it happens, the city of Houston owns the hotel, and the politicians made it clear when the city contracted with Hilton to manage the property that they wanted it to be a union shop, a rarity among Texas hotels.

Now Flores wanted outside help nudging the Hilton to move beyond wages that he says tend toward $6.25 to $7 an hour for employees who don't make tips.

So he lined up community groups such as The Metropolitan Organization and went in a pack to City Council. Several council members spoke in support, and Flores says negotiations have gone better since. (A call to hotel officials was not returned by deadline.)

Traditionally, city officials have backed such union efforts because they rely on union support to build such high-ticket items as sports facilities, convention halls and (the latest endeavor of U.S. cities) convention hotels.

But now there's a more important reason to seek better wages for service workers such as hotel employees. With so many middle-class jobs being shipped offshore, it's vital that we move into the middle class the workers whose jobs can't be exported.

It is part of the theology of America these days that it is the natural order for maids and hamburger flippers and discount store clerks -- all jobs that can't be sent to Mexico, India or Korea -- to be paid poverty wages.

There was a time when factory workers and coal miners were seen the same way: untrained labor worth little more than enough money to buy the food necessary to keep them working.

America became an economic power in the world when, often through bloody labor wars, its biggest industries started paying enough money to put their workers in the middle class.

Now those industries have moved offshore. The best response is not to try to compete with China on wages. It's to move workers in our growing industries into the middle class.

Can we afford it? Any society that buys its coffee at Starbucks, that responds to low gasoline prices by buying Hummers and Lincoln Navigators, that sees cable television as a necessity, can afford to pay all its workers well.

I'm telling you graduates this not because I expect you to go to work for the Gap, although some of you may. It's that all of you -- especially those of you who will become entrepreneurs -- will be better off if America grows its middle class.

So whatever happens at the Hilton, which has to compete with nonunion hotels, we need to change our theology.

Henry Ford understood it best. He wanted his workers to be able to buy the cars they made.

I want America to be able to afford to buy what you create.

You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at [email protected].


 Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle


June 4, 2004, 1:27AM

HISD's top 10 collect $1 million

Administrators' pay rises despite budget cuts elsewhere



The 10 most highly paid Houston school district administrators will earn a total of more than $1 million this year, in some cases after double-digit raises, even as nearly 500 school district employees have lost their jobs since 2002 because of budget cuts.

In all, about 50 administrators will earn more than $100,000 in 2004, with salaries ranging from $271,288 for Kaye Stripling, the superintendent of schools, to $100,533 for Mario Vasquez, a district lawyer, according to HISD employment records.

The district's highest-paid teachers, however, including those with 20 years of experience and a master's degree, top out at about $65,000 in annual pay.

Administrator salaries are increasingly being singled out by community and union groups as a way for the district to close a deficit of more than $30 million during the upcoming school year. They have suggested that top officials take a symbolic pay cut to help balance the $1.3 billion budget.

"A cut of the top administrative staff salary of 5 to 10 percent would be a real act of showing employees that the administrators are willing to feel the pain," said Houston Federation of Teacher President Gayle Fallon. "I'm not talking about building principals. I'm talking central administrative building staff."

Across the country in recent years, top school administrators have seen their salaries cut or frozen, often voluntarily, to help their financially troubled districts.

In Denver, the superintendent has declined a pay raise for three years, and in the Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County schools, the director cut his own salary by $8,000 and asked his top staff for 3 percent give-backs.

"When times are this tight, these types of measures are called for," said Nashville school spokesman Craig Owensby.

Not everyone agrees salary cuts are the best solution.

Rob Mosbacher, chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership, said more state funding is the answer, not cuts from the top.

"In my experience in the business world, everyone needs to tighten their belts in tough times," Mosbacher said. "But cutting those salaries would not save enough money to make much of a difference."

He added, "Whether we need as many senior people as there are, that's a question that needs to be looked at, which I'm sure the district has."

Thursday, school officials defended the administrator salaries as being comparable to other large urban districts and as vital to retaining valuable employees.

Terry Abbott, an HISD spokesman, said that the district "does not have an unduly large number of administrators who make over $100,000" and that "all across the country, school districts are paying higher salaries to retain leaders."

This year, the district's controller, Kenneth Huewitt, will earn $137,512, up 18 percent over his 2003 salary of $116,150.

Abbott defended the raise, saying that when Huewitt began as controller, he earned $25,000 less a year than his predecessor. He has also taken on new responsibilities such as property management and payroll oversight, Abbott said.

He said most HISD administrators have been held to 1 percent raises over the past three years. Teachers have received about 3 percent raises.

With increased health care costs and the loss of a $1,000 medical insurance reimbursement from the state, "the pay of HISD administrators has been cut in recent years," he added.

One name on the top 10 list will come off later this month: HISD chief business officer Cathy Mincberg, the fourth-highest-paid administrator at $162,333, resigned effective June 19.

Fueling the debate about administrator salaries are the budget discussions this year, which some have said are too slow and secretive.

In recent weeks, board members have met in groups of three or four behind closed doors with district officials rather than in open meetings. A public meeting is scheduled for June 17.

"This budget should be transparent. It's our public money," said Orell Fitzsimmons, who represents cafeteria and maintenance workers, who are among the lowest-paid school employees.

Fitzsimmons, the president of the Service Employees International Union Local 100, said the district has already cut maintenance and food service staff to the "bare bones," from 2,400 workers to about 1,900.

He said cafeteria workers take home about $300 every two weeks and have received only a 1 percent raise over the past three years. Many of them can not afford to pay the extra $79 for health insurance.

The education committee of The Metropolitan Organization, a coalition of church and community groups, met Thursday to discuss the school budget and pending cuts, said committee member Ana Cummings.

"I'm surprised that so many administrators are making $100,000 or more," she said. "It doesn't seem like they're taking their share of the cuts."

State Rep. Rick Noriega, who chaired the Public School Finance Committee for the Mexican American Caucus, said HISD is in a tough budgeting situation, especially after the failed special legislative session.

"But they have their sacred cows in top management," Noriega said.

School officials should approve a budget in the coming weeks, and board President Karla Cisneros promised it would be a "very responsible one."

She said many of the job cuts since 2002 have been clerical and other nonschool jobs. "But our administrators have had to work harder with less personnel. Who do you think is picking up the slack?"


  Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle


June 8, 2004, 12:13AM

Unions find way to grow

As jobs travel overseas, U.S. recruiting picks up

Associated Press

During his 15 years with Boeing Co., Stephen Gentry never pictured himself wearing the union label.

Then the computer programmer from Auburn, Wash., was laid off last summer after training his replacement, a worker in India.

Now Gentry, who hasn't worked since, is among those convinced that America's white-collar workers have to band together to keep their futures from being exported to places where skilled labor comes cheap.

"I don't see any other options," said Gentry, 52, who's joined a Seattle-based union trying to organize tech workers around the country. "There's no loyalty anymore. I feel my job was taken by corporate greed."

For some unions, the growing concerns about offshoring are an opportunity to recruit more members like Gentry.

"I get a call last week from Intel; I get a call from Microsoft. I get calls from places we never used to get calls from," said Andy Banks, organizing director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers in Silver Spring, Md. "People are realizing that labor unions are the best-kept secret in America. You have no employment rights at work unless you have a collective bargaining agreement."

The issue's potency, particularly during a jobless economic recovery, was proven last month when the Communications Workers of America negotiated a new contract with SBC Communications after a four-day strike. As part of the deal, the San Antonio-based phone company agreed to work with the union to bring an estimated 3,000 company jobs in India and the Philippines to the United States.

During the strike by the communications union's 102,000 SBC workers, thousands of picketers around the country hoisted anti-offshoring signs saying "SBC Unpatriotic" and "Keep Jobs in America."

"There is something to be said for shaming a company, if you say, 'This company will outsource good jobs from our community,' " said Christian Weller, a researcher at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. "In the current environment, it's a land mine for the company. There's a real receptive audience for this."

That connection was important for the union, given that for decades labor has been losing bargaining clout and public prestige.

Fewer than 10 percent of the nation's private-sector workers now are unionized, down from a peak of 37 percent in 1960, according to federal statistics.

"This is a kind of lever to convince the public that labor is under pressure more than people realize it is, that it could be you tomorrow," said Alex Colvin, a labor professor at Penn State University.

But another labor organizer said the foreign outsourcing issue can cut both ways.

"They're afraid that their job is not secure, and therefore they want a union to protect them," Kevin Kistler of New York-based Office and Professional Employees International said of workers. "But they're also afraid to stick their head up and try to help form the union because their job is so tenuous."

The number of U.S. high-tech and service jobs that have been moved overseas so far is relatively small, but a report last month said the pace is quickening.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research estimates about 830,000 such positions will be relocated to India, Russia and other low-wage nations by the end of 2005, and that 3.4 million jobs representing $136 billion in U.S. wages will be lost by 2015.

Labor organizer Banks said the communications union's success with SBC is an important lesson for other unions.

"If we have enough examples where people are winning the outsourcing issue, why wouldn't people turn to unions?" he said. "It can be the one issue that can revitalize the labor movement."

Banks said offshoring work was a key issue that helped his union organize 250 engineers and architects employed by the city of San Jose, Calif. He said a drive to organize engineers will start soon in Seattle.

Marcus Courtney, who in 1997 co-founded the Washington Alliance of Technical Workers in Seattle, says the unionizing effort started slowly but has gained momentum. WashTech's dues-paying membership has more than doubled to 450 in the past year, he says, while its newsletter subscriber list grew eightfold to 17,000.

"And we are talking to almost a thousand workers a month about organizing," said Courtney, whose union has offshoots in most of the nation's high-tech centers. "Not only is (offshoring) resonating with the public, but they're seeing unions are addressing it and they're out front on it."

Uday Karmarkar, a UCLA management professor, said corporate efforts to cut costs by automating more tasks and encouraging self-service via the Internet threaten at least as many white-collar jobs as offshoring.

"There's a much better us-versus-them story when it's offshoring," said Karmarkar, who wrote an article on the subject for the current edition of the Harvard Business Review. "It's 'Somebody's taking our jobs,' rather than 'We're automating the jobs.' "

Gentry, the laid-off programmer, said he overcame a deep aversion to unions to become an active part of Courtney's group.

"I thought these guys are trying to do what's right," he said. "I don't know if it'll do much good, but I feel like I'm doing something."