Awakening Giant

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

They held their ground. At 6:20 p.m., Daniel told protesters to leave by seven or be fired. That deadline came and went. Daniel called in the police. Several patrol cars arrived and dispersed the group peacefully. The workers and their demonstration fell back to the roadside.

Day one of the standoff ended there, but the workers were not going quietly into the night. This case was no longer an isolated dispute at an obscure duct-making plant. The workers and their grievances would soon catch the attention of federal investigators, union organizers, community leaders and the media.

Quietflex is part of an air-conditioning and heating empire that generates an estimated $400 million-plus in annual revenues. Harold Goodman created the climate-control conglomerate and passed it to his son John Goodman, who is no stranger to Latin countries, or at least polo-loving Argentina. Goodman has a 900-acre polo ranch near Houston and some 70 ponies, some of them commanding six-figure prices. And he owns one of the premier polo teams in the world (see "The Patrón," by Randall Patterson, November 19, 1998).

Reynaldo Montiel, 19, worries about surviving if he leaves the plant.
Steve Lowry
Reynaldo Montiel, 19, worries about surviving if he leaves the plant.
\Inside Quietflex: Protesting workers say there's no opportunity for advancement.
\Inside Quietflex: Protesting workers say there's no opportunity for advancement.

Since 1992 John Goodman has had Dan Daniel overseeing operations at the Houston plant, which is valued on the county tax rolls at nearly $6 million.

Daniel, with slick gray hair sweeping over his collar, is a suspender-clad 53-year-old native Houstonian. He and Evette Davis, a California public relations consultant hired after the walkout to handle the media, bristle at the notion that his workers are underpaid or treated poorly.

On a recent day he settles in at the head of a conference table, flanked by Davis and a second PR consultant, to argue that Quietflex workers enjoy comprehensive benefits and that their wages have outpaced inflation. The pay system makes quick comparisons difficult, however. Employees of the duct-assembly division can either receive a flat $7 hourly wage or be paid according to the number of ducts they produce. Almost always, the per-piece pay is higher.

"That's why it's an incentive-based system. Those people who really want to work can earn outstanding wages," Davis says. That compensation approach lends a survival-of-the-fittest edge to an operation that produces more than 15,000 ducts per day. The actual pay for each duct produced has gone up by only a penny in the last ten years, but the company has streamlined the process so workers can make more ducts each day, Daniel says.

"Our approach is to generate increased income for our employees through increases in productivity," he says. "We say, 'What can we do to make the job easier? Š What can we do to improve the guys' productivity?' And we've done a pretty good job doing that."

Daniel insists that duct workers' hourly wages from per-piece pay increased from an average of $8.55 in 1990 to $11.77 in 1999. Employee pay stubs, however, indicate that workers sometimes earned more per hour ten years ago than today. Workers want a base average salary of $7 an hour, and on top of that, compensation for each duct produced.

"Outlandish," Daniel replies.

The conflict with his workers actually results from many little misunderstandings that built up over time and eventually broke the proverbial camel's back, Daniel maintains. He likens the state of affairs to a bump in the road encountered by a married couple. He wades into a lengthy analogy, using aide Evette as the subject:

"It's like you're in a relationship and you say, 'Gosh, I gave her a birthday present, I gave her an anniversary present, I gave her a new car for Christmas, look at the house we're living in, I gave her a mink coat Š' You're in front of a shrink now. The psychologist says, 'Well, gosh, Evette, what did you really want?' She says. 'What I really want is a hug, and to be heard.'

"And you know," Daniel concludes, "I don't think we did a good job of hearing our employees."

The workers would argue they haven't seen anything like the gifts hypothetically showered on Evette. But the analogy is instructive, revealing the deep divide that lies between Daniel and his corps. Daniel can afford such amenities as big houses and furs. Most of the workers buy their kids secondhand clothes and struggle to scrape together $250 for rent for stark abodes. For special occasions they take their families to the neighborhood taqueria.

Still, if the relationship analogy were to abide, the workers would not describe their partner as a coldhearted spendthrift, but rather as a fiscally cautious, hearing-impaired taskmaster.

"More than anything, they ignore us," says Fernando Gonzalez, a forklift operator who has worked for the company for 13 years. "They can't toss us aside. We're not animals. We're human beings."

The walkout was not an impromptu insurrection, but rather the product of many years of frustration in which workers kept silent even as they were being asked to speed up production. Virtually all the laborers are immigrants from Latin America, and only a handful speak English. Some worry about their legal status in the United States. Despite the risks, they went ahead with their protest.

"It was the desperation of seeing reality and saying, 'Let's do something for us and make the company aware that it's too much work and too little pay,' " says 53-year-old Manuel Muñoz. "Many people were desperate. The company has grown greatly, but we have gone down."

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