Awakening Giant

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

"The growing workforce here is immigrant labor. They're impoverished immigrant workers," Shaw says. "There's a frustration out there that's growing because the economy is good and they are not getting their share."

Rice sociology professor Klineberg views the bold action by the Quietflex workers as an important departure from a tradition of exploitation of unskilled Hispanic immigrant workers.

Klineberg says the Quietflex workers have challenged the rigid occupational structure of U.S. industry, characterized by a lack of upward mobility regardless of how hard a person works. "Part of what's going on here is [the workers] are saying, 'Enough already! There has to be a way to work your way out of poverty.' "

With the soaring economy, abundance of jobs and low unemployment, Quietflex's Daniel suggests that if his workers are unhappy, they should find work elsewhere. "Houston unemployment is 4 percent. I mean, if [Quietflex] is such a terrible place to live and work, why don't they go find another job?" he says. "We don't force them to stay here."

The laborers give different answers for why they stay. Fernando Gonzalez, the forklift driver, cites the fact that he has already invested 13 years of his life in the company and would rather stay and fight for change.

Reynaldo Montiel, a shy 19-year-old from Guerrero, says it comes down to a question of survival. "What would I eat? Where would I live?" he says. "That's why I don't want to leave."

As the organizing efforts continue, Daniel says he just wants everything to return to normal.

"My position is that we've treated our employees well and we'll continue to treat our employees wellŠ.I think we're a pretty good place to work," he says, before shading those words with ones of contrition.

"Yeah, I mean, some of the things we could have done better. We could have better payroll information. Yeah, I should have had the lunchroom cleaned earlier. You know, shame on me! But you've got to look at Š the totality of it." He launches into another analogy, this time without referring to furs and fine houses and snuggly hugs. "Is the relationship basically good, or basically bad? Do you want to salvage a relationship?" Daniel says. "You see what I'm saying? That's where I come down on it."

On a recent day, Lázaro Garcia has been busy cementing another kind of relationship, one of solidarity among workers during the laborers' demonstration outside Goodman Holding Co. In less than two hours he will start his eight-hour shift at Quietflex. As he waits for his enchiladas at a bustling Northside taqueria, amid lunchtime chatter and sprightly conjunto music that pours from a jukebox, he remains hemmed in by responsibilities.

His cell phone rings. It's his wife asking him to pick up some soda on his way home. Garcia agrees in a barely audible voice, and the conversation ends.

"Mi domadora[my master]," he says to his companions with a grin.

When he was younger, Garcia wanted to become a dentist. But growing up poor in Mexico, he set his sights on more attainable goals, working variously as a police officer, prison guard and cab driver. In the late 1980s he worked as a field hand in Florida. And he had a stint cleaning chickens at a poultry plant in Georgia.

Although he has lived an itinerant life, Garcia believes every person deserves dignified treatment. "Our pride allows us to fight for a cause," he says. "We've started, and now we have to finish."

E-mail John Suval at john.suval@ houstonpress.com.

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