For weeks Lázaro Garcia wondered if the new faces at Quietflex were getting to his fellow workers. They hovered inside the buzzing plant, a few neatly dressed men and one woman, pulling sweaty workers aside to warn them of the ills of unions.
The strangers headed daily gatherings in the meeting room, where they played flicks with a union-bashing bent.
"They told us a lot of lies -- unions are bad, they only want your money." Garcia says. "I didn't pay them any attention." But last week's long-awaited union election suggests that lots of others did absorb the message: The vote was 145-81 against unionizing.
The loss hit hard for Garcia and his co-workers. It also had AFL-CIO leaders shaking their heads. Union representatives had hailed the Quietflex effort, aimed at the foreign-born Quietflex workforce, as the "poster child" of their new embrace of immigrant workers. Labor had pumped thousands of dollars into a vigorous campaign at the air-conditioning and heating duct factory.
Officials of Local 54 of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association got involved after Garcia and 82 co-workers walked off their jobs in January to protest low wages and body-numbing duties (see "Awakening Giant," by John Suval, February 24). They wanted to discuss grievances with Quietflex President Dan Daniel. Instead, Daniel fired them.
The company reinstated the workers two weeks later amid a probe by the National Labor Relations Board. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed 83 discrimination charges.
The union effort drew organizers from as far away as Oklahoma and Kansas. "The immigrant workforce is a workforce to be reckoned with in the city," said Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO. "It is a workforce largely getting cheated and exploited and stands ready to be organized."
The company, in turn, mounted its antiunion counterattack.
As the May 4 vote approached, Quietflex owner John Goodman implored the workers to trust the company -- not organized labor -- to improve conditions. Some workers say he conveniently neglected to mention that two other plants in his heating and home appliance empire are unionized.
In the end, it appears the election results fell largely along racial lines, with most of the Hispanics voting for the union, and most of the Vietnamese opposing it. From the beginning, the Vietnamese workers were considered the wild card in the unionization campaign, and both the company and labor organizers energetically courted them.
The company held a strong hand on this front. All but two of the laborers in Quietflex's two highest-paid departments are Vietnamese.
City Councilman Gordon Quan, who closely followed the developments at Quietflex, says part of the Vietnamese mistrust of organized labor stems from organized labor's historically antagonistic stance toward immigrant workers. In February the AFL-CIO announced it would seek protections for the millions of foreign-born workers in the United States, but that flip-flop has yet to translate into widespread trust among Vietnamese workers.
"I think there's a lot of education that needs to go into building confidence among Vietnamese workers," Quan says.
Quietflex president Daniel and owner Goodman declined an interview with the Houston Press. Nevertheless, Daniel cheered the victory in a press release. "Quietflex's goal now is to get back to work and focus on expanding its business. The employees have made their position clear. We hope the union will do the honorable thing and listen to the voice of the workers," the statement said.
Daniel has reason to be pleased about keeping his workers out of the union's hands. Hispanic workers in unions earn about 35 percent more than their nonunionized counterparts, says Emilio Zamorra, a University of Houston history professor. Zamorra was one of the witnesses at a hearing on workers' rights, chaired by U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee.
Quietflex workers get paid for every duct they produce, and must produce hundreds each day to earn a livable wage. Zamorra estimated that the market price for a piece of duct is four times the production cost. That means millions of dollars in annual profits for the company, and chronic back injuries for the workers, he said.
Several local politicians, religious leaders and community activists have been supporting workers' calls for reform at the plant. State Senator Mario Gallegos says he will try to keep the pressure on the company. "I'm going to ask Quietflex to try to rectify some of those problems," he says.
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Union officials say the onus is now on the company to improve conditions. If not, the Sheet Metal Workers Union could well be back next year to hold another vote, says organizer Doug McGee.
For his part, Garcia says he and his fellow workers have no intention of ending the struggle for equitable treatment they began four months ago.
"One battle is not the war," he says.
E-mail John Suval at email@example.com.