April 29, 2005, 11:36PM

Janitors' campaign comes to town

After success elsewhere, union to rally here today


The campaign started 20 years ago when unionized janitors in Pittsburgh confronted a pay cut and elimination of their health insurance.

The workers refused, and the cleaning contractors locked them out for a year. But after a bitter struggle, members of the Service Employees International Union came away with their wages and health insurance intact.

That initial success launched the union's Justice for Janitors organizing drive. Strikes in such cities as Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston, mass public displays of broom-toting supporters, and public solidarity from clergy members and members of Congress led to contracts in 27 cities.

Along the way, the janitors won big wage increases so they now earn more than $10 an hour, work full time and receive employer-paid family health insurance.

SEIU represents about 200,000 janitors across the nation, and it hopes to add 8,000 office cleaners in Houston to its membership. The janitors work for cleaning contracting firms rather than individual building owners.

Union officials expect between 500 and 1,000 local janitors who earn an average $5.30 an hour, work part time and receive no health insurance to attend a rally at the George R. Brown Convention Center today to kick off its latest organizing effort.

Ercilia Sandoval will be there. Sandoval, who is from El Salvador, has dusted and mopped three floors of the Aon building near the Galleria for five years. She earns $5.25 an hour.

"Una miseria," said Sandoval, who added that she's received only one 10-cent-an-hour raise.

Sandoval, who is a diabetic, said she doesn't get health insurance and can't afford to buy the drugs she needs to control her disease. Even with her husband's income, she can't afford to get her daughter's cavities filled.

'Why not here?'

"The owners of these companies are the same as in other cities in the United States. Why not here?" said a frustrated Sandoval, who hopes the union can negotiate a contract with health insurance.

Members of Congress, City Council members, a county commissioner and religious leaders, including representatives from the Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, are expected to attend the rally.

Building owners may not put up that much of a struggle.

"Initially it took strikes because most building owners rejected higher wages," said Eliseo Medina, the executive vice president of SEIU in San Antonio who heads the union's operations in the Southwest.

"But as the relationship matured with building owners, we try to work with them to figure out a way it can be a win-win for everyone and minimize conflict," Medina said.

In some cities, building owners have agreed to union recognition as long as a majority of workers signed up.

The union's strategy has been to negotiate marketwide agreements with the large janitorial service firms. That way, no company is at a competitive disadvantage when negotiating cleaning rates with clients.

Five companies dominate

In Houston, the union says the janitorial office cleaning market is dominated by five companies that control 78 percent of the market.

OneSource Facility Services, which has 20 percent of the Houston office cleaning market according to the union, said a large portion of its work force already belongs to the union in other cities.

"While OneSource plans to keep abreast of union developments in the Houston area, our primary focus will continue to be providing high-quality, cost-effective facility services to our customers," according to the company's prepared statement.

The union's strategy is based on winning some hard-fought battles early on, said Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO.

He added that the union has been quietly gathering support in Houston among religious, labor, political and com- munity leaders for the past four years.

Eager to help

Local political leaders are eager to help because getting employer-sponsored health insurance for thousands of low-income workers reduces the drain on taxpayers to provide health care, he said.

But Shaw isn't expecting a cake walk.

"I don't see it without a struggle," he said, based on the employers he knows in Houston.


 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle


April 29, 2005, 11:35PM

Flight attendants union clashes with Continental

With talks over concessions just under way, tone sharpens


Labor negotiations between Continental Airlines and its flight attendants union ratcheted up a notch Friday as a war of words broke out.

Flight attendant leaders posted a memo saying they have rejected the carrier's proposal for $72 million in concessions.

Houston-based Continental shot back a statement saying it didn't even have such a proposal on the table for the talks, which just formally kicked off again Wednesday.

The latest twist may signal a more aggressive approach from the union leadership, still smarting from being the only union at Continental where the membership voted down proposed concessions.

In the union official's memo to the 9,000-plus flight attendants, they noted $72 million equates to a decrease of almost 21 percent in payroll.

"Your negotiating committee unanimously rejected this company demand," the memo said.

The document, which was posted on the Web site of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 2339, included a column purporting to show how much base pay for flight attendants would be reduced based on years of service.

But Continental said it has not even discussed wage rates with the union.

"Our normal policy is not to comment on negotiations while they are in progress," the company said in a statement provided to the Chronicle. "However, the company wants to make absolutely clear that it has not discussed wage rates with the flight attendant union, and the union bulletin does not describe an actual company proposal."

Continental said as was the case in the last negotiation, "We expect the necessary savings will be achieved from a combination of components, most of which will not affect wage rates."

The $72 million is about what the company is expected to be seeking in concessions from the flight attendants. They have expressed unhappiness with such things as the proposed reduction of one week of vacation.

Other union groups last month approved wage and benefit cuts that Continental sought, bringing the total in concessions, including those from nonunion workers, to $418 million.

The flight attendants' union voted down its proposal, however, with some members voicing displeasure with the proposal and with the representation provided by the union.

Union leaders had unanimously approved Continental's previous proposal and sent it to their membership for a vote.

Union officials could not be reached for comment late Friday.

But the memo to the flight attendants said that vacation pay, premium pay and all other pay items also would be reduced by almost 21 percent.


  Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle


May 12, 2005, 10:51PM


Reform plan is approved by HISD

Principals at 2 low-performing high schools will replace dozens of their teachers


Two of Houston's low-performing high schools will keep their principals but get rid of dozens of teachers under a reform plan approved Thursday by the school board.

The unanimous vote comes three months after Houston Independent School District Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra promised dramatic changes at Yates, Sam Houston and Kashmere high schools. Thursday's vote, though, only applies to Yates and Sam Houston. A decision on Kashmere's reform plan was delayed until after someone is hired to replace former Principal Stanton Lawrence. The new Kashmere principal will likely be given authority to make similar staff changes, Saavedra said.

The president of the Houston Federation of Teachers criticized the plan to replace many of the fired teachers with fresh college graduates trained in the Teach for America program.

"The Teach for America kids are great, but they are first-year, uncertified teachers," Fallon said. "You are at risk of losing some of your best teachers."

HISD policy requires all the removed teachers be placed in different schools or in substitute positions with no loss of salary.

Dozens of parents, including about 20 wearing black Sam Houston T-shirts, attended the school board meeting Thursday to support leaving the school under the control of HISD employees. Saavedra had entertained proposals from private companies and nonprofit groups seeking to manage the schools, but the idea drew widespread protest.

First-year Sam Houston Principal Aida Tello "brings a fresh perspective, and she is looking at things in holistic terms," said Houston City Council Member Adrian Garcia.

Yates parents said they are ready to shed the controversy surrounding the reform process and get to work.

"What we need at Jack Yates is some continuity," said Bertrand Simmons, vice president of the Yates Parent Teacher Student Association. "We need (Principal George August) to have an opportunity to put his plan in place."

Former Texas Southern University President James Douglas blamed the schools' plight on HISD's use of magnet schools that draw students out of their neighborhood campuses.

"You left them high and dry with no leadership," Douglas told trustees.

Saavedra, however, hasn't ruled out giving Yates parents the option of sending their children to a charter program managed by the Knowledge Is Power Program. The nonprofit organization already runs several schools in Houston. Saavedra is giving KIPP a year to rally support for a plan to begin the 2006-07 school year with a class of sixth-graders.

"I'm glad that the superintendent recognizes the value that KIPP could contribute to helping the schools become great schools, and if the communities at those two schools would like us to contribute, we are on a mission to be able to provide that help," said KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg. "Regardless, we will continue to grow in Houston to meet the demand from the parents and students who would like to get a great education from KIPP."


 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle