Awakening Giant

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

And on the morning after the showdown at the plant, some employees already were feeling that their chances had suddenly gone down in flames.

"The majority felt bad. They were demoralized," Garcia says. For his part, Garcia says he felt convinced they were doing the right thing. His wife, however, fretted about their four children.

Daniel warmly referred to workers wanting a hug. Quietflex instead gave them a squeeze -- a hard squeeze. The group of 83 was suddenly jobless.

For the next nine days the striking workers resumed their roadside protests outside Quietflex. They were worried about the prospects, but they also were heartened by help that came from unexpected places.

A charitable organization, Casa Juan Diego, stepped in and eased some of the pressures by offering financial support. Local 54 of the Sheetmetal Workers Union began helping them organize a union and seek protections in that effort. The local filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board against Quietflex for allegedly firing the employees for engaging in a concerted work stoppage. (Daniel says he fired the workers only for not complying with his order to leave company property.)

The workers also filed charges of discrimination and retaliation against Quietflex with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Meanwhile, the news media, Spanish and English, had coverage of the workers' struggle. What began as an internal dispute turned into a gathering storm that Quietflex could not easily control.

At the end of the second week of picketing, Daniel made an offer: The laborers could have their jobs back, but under the same conditions as before. The workers reluctantly accepted.

Garcia felt disappointed that no changes were offered, but he believed the group had momentum.

"I didn't feel defeated, but I did feel bad," he says.

Daniel and media consultant Davis insist the struggle with the workers is purely over economics. They have good reason to view it that way; the EEOC investigation goes beyond any wage dispute. The agency is probing 83 charges of discrimination and retaliation filed by the workers.

While the laborers' letter to Daniel sought better pay and other improvements, the last request was succinct, saying simply, "We do not want any more discrimination."

It's not difficult to see why the workers in the duct-assembly and shipping areas felt they have been victims of prejudice. Their departments are the only ones out of ten at Quietflex that are 100 percent Hispanic.

By contrast, there are only two or three Hispanics among the roughly 60 workers in the company's best-paid department, the one that manufactures wire-encapsulated polyester cores and synthetic jackets for the ducts. Most of those, ironically, are other foreign-born workers: Vietnamese. Numerous Hispanic laborers, like Muñoz, who has worked at Quietflex for ten years, say they sought transfers to better areas, but have run up against walls.

"I hoped the company would give me the opportunity to work in another department, but they haven't. People need an incentive to continue," Muñoz says. "We all have families to support. The company has to offer some hope [of advancing] so the people will stay there."

Daniel says all Quietflex's workers can vie for positions in other departments when they open but that those in the core and jacket department are more skilled. Few of the protesting workers have tried to transfer, he adds, a claim that several workers dispute.

Basic pride also comes into play. At Quietflex, some workers were assigned on a rotating basis to do the most menial job at the plant: picking up the trash left by the lunching workforce. It is a chore that can take up to a half hour to complete, and there is no pay whatsoever for it. For years the only laborers ordered to do that chore were Hispanic, the workers in the duct-assemby area.

However, public relations consultant Davis says race has nothing to do with it. Plant management merely decided that trash collection should be a task for duct assemblers -- and it is only coincidental that every one of them is Hispanic. "It's very easy to get trapped into thinking that this is an issue related to them being Hispanic. It's not," she lectures. They are the largest worker group, and they should take responsibility for cleaning up their lunch area, she says, conveniently neglecting to mention that they also must pick up the leftovers of employees of other divisions.

Hispanic workers also question if bias is involved in plant safety issues. The company issues them protective uniforms, masks and goggles, but laborers say they are ineffective against the blizzard of fiberglass residue encountered in the work. And the ever-present pressure to produce enough ducts to get adequate pay causes physical problems, they say.

The result is chronic back, shoulder and hip injuries among workers, says Dr. Jesus E. Garcia, a Houston chiropractor. Garcia estimates as many as 70 percent of the workers from three Houston-area duct-assemby plants have those types of injuries. For the baggers, the people who sack the finished product, knee and hip problems prevail. The duct makers tend to suffer musculoskeletal injuries to their backs.

"It's quite amazing how many people get injured on a weekly basis," Garcia says. Often injuries are misdiagnosed by doctors at the clinic to which Quietflex sends employees for job-related injuries, he says. The workers frequently return to work, only to reinjure themselves. "They usually go back to the same kind of work and get reinjured. By the time they come back to see me, what was a strain injury now is a disk injury," he says.

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