In January Fermín Colindres and more than 80 other Hispanic workers walked off their jobs to protest unequal wages and degrading conditions at Quietflex, a Houston manufacturer of heating and air-conditioning components.
The bold action touched off perpetual uncertainty, conflict and frustration. But Colindres, a 44-year-old El Salvador native, says of the roller-coaster ride, "It was worth it."
Over the course of the year they faced numerous reversals before achieving any sense of vindication. The first blow came the day of the strike, when company president Dan Daniel fired the mostly immigrant workers, only to reinstate them days later after they filed labor charges (see "Awakening Giant," by John Suval, February 24). The local arm of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association took up their cause, setting the stage for a hotly contested union campaign. The company waged a hardball antiunion effort and got the result it wanted in May: a resounding vote against unionizing (see "Workers Reject a Union," by John Suval, May 11).
However, the struggling workers picked up numerous allies, including influential leaders like U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee and state Senator Mario Gallegos. Their sweetest moment came in October when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released the results of a lengthy investigation of Quietflex.
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The investigation disclosed a company deeply divided along ethnic lines, principally Vietnamese and Hispanic. The EEOC found that Hispanics were segregated into lower-paying, less desirable jobs, had scant opportunities to transfer into other departments despite their qualifications, and got saddled with degrading tasks like having to clean the common lunchroom without pay.
Quietflex "engaged in a pattern and practice of disparate adverse treatment of Hispanics based on their national origin," the EEOC report said.
The agency confirmed what Colindres and his fellow workers had been saying for years about the company. "Everybody saw there was discrimination," Colindres says with some satisfaction.
The EEOC will meet with Quietflex brass soon to discuss implementing changes. The agency typically seeks substantial reforms and monetary relief in cases involving a pattern of discrimination, and often pursues legal action when a company resists reforms.
EEOC district director H. Joan Ehrlich said the agency is prohibited from discussing pending cases. At Quietflex, neither Daniel nor owner John Goodman returned calls from the Houston Press.
Now, Colindres and his counterparts are caught in a wait-and-see mode. Workers complain that conditions remain every bit as bad as when the fight began. They still toil at back-breaking speed to assemble enough air-conditioning ducts to support their families, all the while inhaling gritty fiberglass dust. Wages remain stagnant, and they see little possibility of advancing at Quietflex despite years of hard work.
"I feel frustrated," says Lázaro Garcia. "Despite everything the company is the same."
But Colindres sounds a more optimistic note. He says at the very least workers can take pride in the example they set for other exploited immigrant laborers. He still holds out hope that life at Quietflex will improve, believing that the EEOC probe will bring changes. If not, he says, workers can turn to their allies in elected office or attempt to unionize again.
"Before this started, I didn't know what rights immigrants had in this country," Colindres says. "We're confident the laws of this country will prevail."
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