Awakening Giant

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

Back to work has not meant backing off from the cry for change at the plant. To keep the heat on company brass, a few dozen of the laborers gathered earlier this month in front of Goodman Holding Co. headquarters. They traipsed up and down the sidewalk with signs proclaiming, "Show me the money" and "Quietflex is unfair to Hispanics." Every few minutes a car would whisk by, honking.

Before long, a crew from Telemundo arrived on the scene. Reporter Rubén Dominguez, decked out in jacket and tie, conducted a few interviews, then set about orchestrating a lively "environmental" shot. He asked the marchers to wag their signs and chant something catchy.

"What do we want?" bellowed Fermín Colindres, a natural leader from El Salvador.

"A raise!" retorted the others.

The Sheetmetal Workers Union provided the signs as well as the navy blue-and-gray caps and T-shirts worn by many of the protesters. Several AFL-CIO leaders were on hand to support the workers.

The union-organizing campaign promises to be a hotly contested subplot in the Quietflex struggle. The AFL-CIO already has brought the workers' plight to the attention of numerous community leaders. State representatives allied with the cause include Jessica Farrar, Sylvester Turner, Rick Noriega, Joe Moreno, Kevin Bailey and Debra Danburg. Other supporters include Sue Schechter, chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party, and Catholic Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza. They urge holding company president Goodman to respect the workers' rights to organize a union.

Fiorenza, in particular, seemed to empathize with the laborers' plight.

"Many of these workers have worked for Quietflex for many years and have demonstrated their loyalty to your company," the bishop wrote to Goodman. "Many of them have families to support and I'm sure that they did not take this action lightly. It is clear to me they are very frustrated."

The first step toward unionizing requires 30 percent of a company's eligible workers to endorse it in writing. In the case of Quietflex, the 83 laborers who participated in the walkout represent 33 percent of the company's workforce. If enough people sign on, the Sheetmetal Workers Union will petition the NLRB on their behalf for a company-wide election. By itself, union representation is no assurance of improvements; those would have to be gained in contract negotiations with the company, which would likely resist the effort.

Quietflex, meanwhile, has mounted a campaign to quickly stamp out the worker movement.

"We haven't needed a union to get involved in our activities over the last eight years. We've done a pretty good job for employees over that period of time," Daniel says. "I would rather deal directly with employees on issues because I think we can understand and get them solved more quickly than having a third party that doesn't know the business involved."

To hedge his bets, Daniel has hired his own third party, a group of "human resources consultants" to show videos and talk to workers about the ills of unionizing.

Doug McGee, an organizer for the local Sheetmetal Workers Union, says the mere fact of the workers' protest suggests they weren't getting an adequate hearing from their boss. In general, labor officials speak with awe about the gutsy wildcat strike mounted by the laborers. Worker protections in laborer actions have steadily eroded in recent decades, and even tightly united unions seldom resort to strikes in this era of intolerance to labor. Having more than 80 nonunionized laborers stage a walkout was a stunning move, even to veteran labor activists.

"It's highly unusual that workers took that type of concerted action without the guidance and representation of a union, and engaged in an economic strike. That's unheard of," McGee says. "That was a great feat for the workers and took a lot of courage. That's how unhappy they are."

Equally surprising is the strong support flowing from organized labor to immigrant workers. In past times, such workers were often the target of unions' wrath. They were viewed as a threat to the wage and job security of native-born workers.

Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO, says the union's support of the Quietflex workers, some of whom are undocumented, reflects a broadening of scope for organized labor, which traditionally has not invervened on behalf of illegal workers.

But the growing number of undocumented laborers in Houston has made them a key force in the local economy, he says. As people and important contributors to society, they deserve protection. "We are going to organize everyone walking and breathing and quit worrying about where they're from," he says.

That position was affirmed only last week by labor's highest leaders. The AFL-CIO, which represents 13 million union workers nationally, called for amnesty for the millions of undocumented immigrant workers. The organization's executive council also wants whistle-blower protection for undocumented employees who report violations of labor laws. Only 15 years earlier, the AFL-CIO had supported laws to penalize employers who hired undocumented immigrants.

In Houston, Shaw, who has worked in the local labor movement since 1973, echoes McGee in his belief that the Quietflex struggle is unique because the workers took matters into their own hands without outside guidance. But with the economy booming, the gap between rich and poor widening, and impoverished immigrants becoming indispensable to the region's economy, Shaw expects similar uprisings to occur.

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