Awakening Giant

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.

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).

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."

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.

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.

"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@

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