Awakening Giant

Immigrant Hispanic workers at Quietflex spoke out. Now their struggle may reshape organized labor in Houston.

José Perez envisions his debts every time he hoists a 75-pound roll of fiberglass, wraps it like a giant taco around a flexible polyester tube and feeds the materials into a machine that converts them into heating and air-conditioning ducts.

For the last 15 years Perez has been making hundreds of ducts a day for Quietflex in northwest Houston. Since he gets paid about 25 cents per duct, each completed piece takes him closer to paying off his house and truck, covering his utility bills and providing food and clothes for his wife and daughter.

He also sends money back to his parents and adult son in the small town in Guerrero state in southern Mexico where he grew up.

Because he produces so many ducts daily, his gross weekly earnings are generally more than $400. But after taxes and a $125 deduction to pay back the $300 monthly loan he takes out from the company around bill time, he frequently takes home about $150.

He's thankful for the work but believes it might be killing him.

"You feel afflicted because you have to work quickly. You think, 'I have to make this many [ducts] to make this much money,' " he says.

After making about 300 ducts, Perez, a soft-spoken man of 45, begins to feel strain in his lower back. And early into the shift in the hot, buzzing factory, he and his fellow workers become covered in yellow fiberglass dust. The sight of the particles glittering on their clothes makes them worry whether their lungs are similarly coated.

In the past, employees in other sections of the plant got their mealtime respite from the work. Perez and his Hispanic coworkers did not. After eating, they were ordered to clean up, without pay, the lunchroom trash left by the other employees.

Perez and the other foreign-born Hispanic employees accepted the conditions like many of their counterparts elsewhere in the region. After all, despite their numbers, immigrant workers were relegated to the fringes of the Houston workforce. But with an unexpected revolt, that shadow existence would change.

"What is so unusual is this awakening of the sleeping giant, which is the Hispanic population of unskilled workers in Houston," says Rice sociology professor Stephen Klineberg. "The central reality is powerlessness, the ease with which they can be exploited, which is why they are preferred over native-born black workers. [The Quietflex struggle] is an important indicator of a changing reality in Houston."

Also shifting are attitudes of traditional organized labor, which had largely distanced itself from these workers in the past. The resulting battle could have an impact far beyond this place with the unlikely name of Quietflex.

"You earn more than minimum wage," says Moisés Hernandez, a 35-year-old Mexico City native. "But you give up your soul."

Last month more than 80 employees began a fight to win back their souls.

Shortly before 6 a.m. on January 10, early-shift employees began arriving for what they thought would be the routine start of another workweek. But as they pulled into the employee lot, headlight beams swept across a handful of coworkers standing in the predawn darkness.

Lázaro Garcia, who works a later shift, was one of those who intercepted the early laborers with an urgent message. They had drafted a letter to be presented to company president Dan Daniel. It asked for a sizable raise and tolerable working conditions. Those requests had been made before, without action. This time the workers were asking fellow employees to make a tough sacrifice: To ensure their grievances were not ignored again, would they halt work until Daniel responded? Garcia, a self-assured man with a steady gaze, admits he wasn't sure what the reaction would be from the workers. Over the weekend he had confided the plans to his wife. The idea, she had told him, was crazy. He was still smarting from her tongue-lashing.

"We weren't nervous necessarily, but we weren't sure everyone would agree to join us," the 33-year-old from Cuernavaca says. They were confronting officials from a division of Goodman Holding Co., the largest air-conditioning, heating and home appliance manufacturer in the world.

By the time company president Daniel arrived at the plant after 10 a.m., Garcia knew the answer to the willingness of his coworkers to join the group. The usually busy duct-assembly and shipping departments were empty. Nobody was on the job there. Instead, one woman and 82 men waited quietly in the parking lot.

Daniel demanded to know what was going on. He was shown a copy of the letter. It reflected the uncertain prose of non-native English speakers, tinged with both roughly hewn respect and smoldering frustration:

"We as employees of Quietflex no longer agree with the working conditions that we are exposed and therefore we are requesting a change to better conditions and better benefits from Quietflex." Six specific changes, ranging from improved pay to better materials, were requested. "We want to set with a representative of Quietflex to talk about this problem hoping to come to an agreement."

Daniel told the workers to appoint a few delegates to meet with him. Wary that it could be a ploy to ferret out the leaders, the laborers declined. The executive could meet with all of them as a group, they replied. Daniel refused. As they huddled in the parking lot, he ordered them off company property.

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