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I don't have a real issue with it," Fallon said. "The bottom line is I'm more concerned that they have 50 to 60 people with six-digit incomes that never see a kid."  Gayle Fallon

Dec. 5, 2004, 9:18AM

Just the standard perks, please

Saavedra asks HISD for contract like Stripling's, a deal that could total $400,000

By JASON SPENCER

Abe Saavedra won't be asking for anything special, just the typical package, when he signs a contract this week to become the next Houston superintendent, his lawyer said.

But typical, by Houston Independent School District standards, means a base annual salary approaching $300,000, plus perks and a $25,000 performance bonus that could put the total package value somewhere near $400,000.

Such a contract would make Saavedra one of the nation's highest-paid school administrators, although others have taken sweeter deals. The new superintendent in Miami, for instance, was promised nearly a quarter-million dollars for a new house.

Luxurious deals usually come about when a handful of districts are bidding for the same candidate, said Robert Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. While that's not the case in Houston, Saavedra is still in a good bargaining position because the school board didn't name any other finalists.

Saavedra, an HISD administrator since 2001, knows trustees would be embarrassed to lose him and have to start another search, Houston said.

"Sometimes, they can get by on the cheap with internal candidates," Houston said. "He's got them a little over a barrel if he wants to use the leverage."

A big salary fight, though, appears unlikely.

Attorneys on both sides are near agreement on Saavedra's contract, which HISD trustees plan to approve Thursday, said Vidal Martinez, who represents Saavedra in the salary talks and has negotiated contracts for several of HISD's recent superintendents.

"There's not much intrigue in any of this," said Martinez, whose latest client wants something similar to the $271,000 base salary Kaye Stripling was making when she retired this year.

"He's not looking for the highest nor the lowest," Martinez said. "He's looking for a reasonably attractive package."

School board attorney David Thompson also said he expects a deal to be struck in time for Thursday's meeting, but he would not discuss details.

"There are some differences, but they're not big differences," he said. "The parties will find their middle ground."

While Stripling's salary was in the upper echelon, her counterparts at the smaller Dallas and Fort Worth school districts earned more.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said she wouldn't have any qualms with Saavedra getting a deal similar to Stripling's.

"I don't have a real issue with it," Fallon said. "The bottom line is I'm more concerned that they have 50 to 60 people with six-digit incomes that never see a kid."

The HISD superintendent oversees a $1.3 billion operation responsible for educating 209,000 students. Private-sector jobs with similar responsibilities tend to command bigger salaries.

Stripling, a 40-year HISD employee, accumulated decades of unused sick pay that totaled $212,000 when she retired. Add in unused vacation time, and Stripling left the district with a check for $253,000.

Saavedra, who came to Houston from Corpus Christi in 2001, won't qualify for such a large sick-time payout. Instead, Martinez said, he wants a three- to five-year deal with performance incentives potentially worth more than the $25,000 maximum bonus written into Stripling's contract.

The promise of a big bonus would be enough to keep Saavedra from considering future job offers from other school districts, Martinez said.

"He will be the most highly sought-after Hispanic superintendent candidate in the country," Martinez said. "There's a reasonable expectation he'll spend the rest of his career in Houston, but why tempt anybody?"

Stripling's contract was stacked with extras that Saavedra also expects, Martinez said. HISD gave Stripling a $1,000 monthly car allowance, hired a personal assistant for her at a cost of nearly $10,000 a year, reimbursed her $19,000 annual retirement contribution and gave her $18,000 to offset the federal income tax she paid for all those perks. She charged an average of $1,000 a month on her district-issued credit card for meals, gasoline, a Houstonian Club membership and travel, according to records provided by HISD.

Jaws dropped earlier this year among educators when Miami-Dade County Public Schools gave Superintendent Rudy Crew a contract that could be worth $480,000. A group of Miami business leaders sweetened the pot even more by offering Crew $240,000 for a new home.

Former Dallas Superintendent Mike Moses, who resigned earlier this year, set the high mark for Texas superintendents with a $341,775 annual salary.

Stripling's pay compared well with the national average for superintendents of urban school districts with more than 200,000 students, according to a 2003 survey conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools. Among those big-city superintendents, the average pay was $223,000.

While the pay may be good, superintendents enjoy little job security.

"A lot of superintendents tend to look at contracts the way sports figures do," said Fallon, the teachers union leader. "They're very heavy on perks, because they know they won't be there long."

jason.spencer@chron.com

 

 

 Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

  "The noblest of the Bush administration's goals, surely, is that of spreading democracy. If it's serious about that task, though, there are places closer to home than the Middle East that could use a little democracy-spreading, and the American workplace is high on that list. Strengthening labor law would make it harder for employers such as Wal-Mart to thwart their workers' desire for an organized voice on the job. When America's largest employer feels more affinity for the political legacy of Mao Tze-tung than for that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, it's time to start democratizing our own back yard."

Dec. 4, 2004, 10:11PM

For Wal-Mart, unions are made in China, too

Why aren't U.S. workers worthy of same organizing?

By HAROLD MEYERSON

Wal-Mart has finally found a union it can live with.

Up to now America's largest employer has opposed every effort of its employees to form a union. Wal-Mart doesn't recognize unions; it doesn't even recognize "employees." The proper Wal-Mart name for its workers is "associates," a term that connotes higher status and collegiality and that actually means lower pay and workplace autocracy. For the privilege of associating themselves with Wal-Mart, its employees are paid so little that many can't afford the health insurance the company generously allows them to buy. One study of health care in Las Vegas revealed that a plurality of that city's employed Medicaid recipients worked at Wal-Mart.

But that was the old Wal-Mart. Last month Wal-Mart announced that if its associates wanted a union to represent them, that would be hunky-dory as long as the union was affiliated with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a body dominated by the Chinese Communist Party. The official statement was simple and seemingly unambiguous: "Should associates request formation of a union, Wal-Mart China would respect their wishes."

Wal-Mart America has made no such declaration, of course. Why it deems its 20,000 Chinese associates who work in its 40 Chinese stores worthy of representation while its 1 million U.S. employees can't be trusted with the right to represent themselves is a good question.

The answer must lie in Wal-Mart's preference for old-line communist-dominated unions in authoritarian communist states over any other kinds of unions anywhere else. America's unions, which Wal-Mart despises, have a long history of anticommunism, and today's AFL-CIO is the staunchest defender on the American political scene of democratic rights in communist nations such as China. For that matter, unions affiliated with reformed or post-communist parties outside of the few remaining communist states have gotten nowhere with Wal-Mart either. Only in China, with its inimitable blend of Dickensian capitalism and authoritarian communism, has Wal-Mart found a union to its liking.

And small wonder. Unions affiliated with the All-China Federation seldom push for wage increases or safer machinery. Indeed, the locals are often headed by someone from company management. Not that there isn't worker discontent in China: Every week brings accounts of spontaneous strikes, and now and then an occasional riot over such lifestyle impediments as unpaid wages. But the role of the state-sanctioned unions isn't to channel the discontent into achievable gains; it's to contain it to the employer's benefit.

The leaders of genuine workers' movements in China don't end up running the All-China Federation. They're to be found in prison, in exile or in hiding. Besides, truly democratic unions in China would run counter to the truly undemocratic, one-party state. Allowing a democratic union movement to form would threaten both Dickensian capitalism and authoritarian communism, and diminish some of China's competitive advantage over other low-wage but not authoritarian nations in Southeast Asia, Central America and elsewhere. Such a development would be anathema to both the Politburo and Wal-Mart's board of directors. It would introduce the concept of free choice and the prospects of higher living standards not just to Wal-Mart's 20,000 Chinese employees but to the far larger number of Chinese workers laboring in poverty-wage servitude to stitch clothing for the contractors, subcontractors and sub-subcontractors whose products fill Wal-Mart's shelves.

When a company such as Wal-Mart is so plainly comfortable with authoritarianism abroad, it tells you something about that company's values at home. Bentonville regards the prospect of employee free association and organization within its stores with the same fear and loathing that Beijing feels at the prospect of free elections in China. Anti-union American employers can't imprison pro-union workers, but exile is a real possibility. Troublemakers are free to go. According to Cornell labor relations professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, at least 5 percent of workers involved in unionization campaigns are fired, which is both quite illegal and quite routine: Companies would rather pay the nominal fines than pay their workers higher wages and lose the absolute control they hold over the work lives of their employees.

The noblest of the Bush administration's goals, surely, is that of spreading democracy. If it's serious about that task, though, there are places closer to home than the Middle East that could use a little democracy-spreading, and the American workplace is high on that list. Strengthening labor law would make it harder for employers such as Wal-Mart to thwart their workers' desire for an organized voice on the job. When America's largest employer feels more affinity for the political legacy of Mao Tze-tung than for that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, it's time to start democratizing our own back yard.

Meyerson is editor-at-large of the American Prospect.

 

Dec. 7, 2004, 9:58PM

Union asks Baytown to call in negotiator

Firefighter pay issue continues as sticking point

By CAROL CHRISTIAN

Picking up where they left off 3 1/2 months ago, Baytown firefighters and city officials last week listed sections of each other's proposals on which they agree.

It was one of only a few episodes of actual bargaining between the two sides since talks began in May. The city and the Baytown Professional Firefighters Association are trying to negotiate a new contract to replace the one that expired Sept. 30.

The union has asked for a three-year contract with pay raises of 4 percent, 3.5 percent and 3 percent. The city has offered a one-year contract with a 2 percent raise. The Baytown City Council in September gave all other city employees 4-percent raises effective Jan. 1.

At the start of the last collective bargaining session between the city and firefighters on Dec. 2, the tone of conversation gave little hope of forward movement.

The union's lead negotiator, Rafael A. Torres, service director for the Austin-based Texas State Association of Firefighters, asked City Attorney Ignacio Ramirez if he would like to explain the contract proposal the city presented Nov. 17.

Ramirez, the city's lead negotiator, said he would answer questions but thought the proposal had been explained.

Torres responded that the proposal was not based upon discussion with the union but was simply a write-up of the city's positions, plus a proposed 2-percent, across-the-board pay increase.

"This is an insult to bargaining," Torres said. "This is probably the worst example of collective bargaining I've ever seen and the best example of bad-faith bargaining."

When Torres asked Dec. 2 if the two sides were going to negotiate, Ramirez said, "That is our last, best and final (offer)."

To move the process along, Torres gave the city team a letter asking that a neutral mediator be brought in.

"There's no sense hitting our heads against the wall," Torres said. "Let's bring in a third party. Their position is to try to get us a contract."

Torres suggested that the two sides use the free services of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Ramirez asked for a caucus, or private meeting, for the city negotiators.

Returning from the 45-minute caucus, Ramirez suggested that the two sides try to agree on a list of the most problematic issues, since Torres' letter referred to "sticking points."

After a 20-minute caucus for the union, the two sides went through the list of 29 articles in the proposal's Table of Contents, starting with the Preamble. As they ticked off each article, the two sides stated whether they could tentatively agree.

Besides salary, the main disagreements had to do with scheduling and management's right to change department policies.

At the Aug. 20 session, Ramirez suggested going through the list of articles to see where the two sides had tentative agreement, but Torres that day had questioned why Ramirez thought it necessary to go through the document line by line.

The review of articles was abandoned at that session and did not resume until last week.

Some sessions in the past seven months were devoted to presenting information about the financial impact the deal would cause the city if it granted the firefighters' salary request. Other sessions were spent debating which cities to use when comparing Baytown firefighters' salaries with those in other departments.

carol.christian@chron.com

 

 Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle