When two bolts broke from the industrial-strength blade of his grinding machine, operator Alejandro Blasio assumed his supervisor at USA Polymer Corp.'s plastics recycling plant would tell him to shut down until repairs could be made. Instead, the supervisor told him to keep working.
A little while later, another bolt gave way. "Pieces of metal started flying out of the machine," Blasio recalls. "When I bent over, the blade flew over my head and hit the wall."
Blasio complained about the incident, but like most complaints from the predominantly Latino work force at the northwest Houston plant, his protest fell on deaf ears.
"They ignored anything you told them," says Luis Castro, who worked on a giant washer that rinsed bales of plastic in preparation for further processing. Castro tells of exposed wiring, slimy floors and putrid standing water at USA Polymer. "The odor was just unbearable," he says.
Nery Mendoza remembers the time most of the workers were driven choking from the building after a small fire filled the plant with acrid smoke. The sprinkler system had been shut down, Mendoza says, because the heat from the machines kept setting it off.
And then there were the everyday annoyances that made going to work at USA Polymer a test of patience, endurance and, sometimes, survival. No toilet paper. No available ladders to climb equipment that sits seven or eight feet off the ground. Leaky water pipes next to electrical boxes. Basic safety equipment such as gloves, respirators and earplugs in short supply. "The vibration and the noise [from the machines] was so tremendous," says Blasio. "We'd loan each other the earplugs to keep from going insane."
Health insurance was, as you might imagine, not part of the workers' microscopic benefits package (pay ranged from a typical $5 an hour to a high of $8.50 an hour for non-supervisors). When he cut his finger, says Castro, his supervisor treated the wound by squirting eye drops on it. "I was able to get one little Band-Aid," he says ruefully.
According to Castro, USA Polymer president and co-owner John Bazbaz kept a pair of huge dogs at the plant and assigned worker Montes De Oca to tend them. While the workers were prohibited from getting a cold drink of water during their shift, the dogs suffered no such deprivations. They had their own radio for entertainment. De Oca even had to wipe the dogs' rear ends after they relieved themselves. If De Oca's ministrations made the dogs twitch, Castro says to peals of laughter from his fellow workers, Bazbaz would reprimand him.
The story of Jose Pello draws no such laughter. Late in 1991, Pello crawled inside one of the grinders to perform cleaning and maintenance. While he was toiling, the shift changed. Unaware the machine was occupied, one of the new workers flicked the switch, shredding Pello in seconds. (An OSHA investigation listed Pello as an employee of Polytex Fibers, one of two other plastics outfits owned by Bazbaz and his brother Isaac in the same building. But workers say that Pello worked for USA Polymer and that Polytex didn't have a grinder.)
Bazbaz did not return phone calls from the Press to discuss conditions at USA Polymer, part of a sprawling industrial park on Baythorne. The low-slung, dingy-brown building is indistinguishable from the other small factories in the park. No sign identifies it; an open bay door revealing a clutter of barrels overflowing with plastic debris is the only hint of the activity inside.
The stories of rank exploitation told by Castro and other former USA Polymer employees are common among the many immigrant workers who toil in Houston's industrial zones. The city's surplus of small plastics factories have a reputation for especially harsh and unsafe conditions. Andy Garza, a longtime Houston labor organizer, has seen more than his share of offending plants. "In some cases, [the conditions] would make you sick," Garza says.
With zero leverage, workers in such plants either suffer their lot in silence or quit in hopes of finding a better job elsewhere. The case of USA Polymer, however, diverged from the norm. Led by electrician Lucio Aviles, the workers contacted the Gulfton Area Neighborhood Organization, a Latino advocacy group, for help in late 1994. GANO in turn referred Aviles to the regional office of ILGWU, the largest national textile workers' union. To document their claims, workers took photos and videotaped the interior of the plant.
Much to the chagrin of Bazbaz and his managers, union organizer Ricardo Medrano and Aviles formed a ten-man organizing committee that included Blasio, Castro and Mendoza. On January 27, 1995, a few weeks after the union sent Bazbaz a letter identifying the committee members, USA Polymer laid off 29 employees, including nine of the ten on the committee.
The move had its intended effect. Though 59 of the 64 non-supervisory employees had signed union cards, those who survived the ax suddenly lost their enthusiasm for the union, clamming up when Medrano approached them.
The union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board shortly thereafter, charging that the employees were laid off for their union activity. Bazbaz, a Mexican national who has owned other businesses south of the border, countered that tough economic times had forced the layoffs and that the idled workers were selected on the basis of experience and track record. But six weeks ago, NLRB administrative law Judge Wallace Nations ruled in favor of the workers, ordering their reinstatement with full back pay.
Though Bazbaz showed that business had in fact declined prior to the layoffs, Nations found many of the company's other claims to be ludicrous. Contrary to the assertions of Bazbaz and his plant managers, the group of laid-off employees generally had more experience and fewer disciplinary problems than those who stayed. Lucio Aviles, for example, was USA Polymer's senior worker. And while Bazbaz called Aviles slow and undependable, he'd been given two raises for his work a few months before he was let go.
Workers testified that after the union effort began, supervisors repeatedly interrogated and threatened to fire them, a violation of federal labor law. In their defense, the supervisors denied any knowledge of the union's existence until after the layoffs, a claim that Nations dismissed outright. "I believe that Respondent's supervisors would say anything that would favor Respondent and deny anything adverse to Respondent, regardless of the truth," Nations wrote in his decision.
Nations also cast a skeptical eye on the company's claim of economic hardship, observing that those workers who didn't support the union were rewarded with raises, as were all the supervisors, immediately after the layoffs. And Bazbaz apparently saw no need to reduce his $120,000 annual salary.
Citing "the serious nature of the violations" by USA Polymer and because of its "egregious and widespread misconduct, demonstrating a general disregard for employees' fundamental rights," Nations ordered USA Polymer to rehire the workers, stop its intimidation of them and recognize the union -- now known as UNITE after a merger with another union -- as their collective bargaining agent.
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But that paper victory may not stand the test of time. USA Polymer will appeal the decision to the NLRB, according to Bazbaz lawyer Whitney Head, who says the administrative law judge "missed the mark" on the layoffs issue. And if that step fails, the company can take the matter before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Even if the court rules against USA Polymer, the appeals process could take well more than a year. And Bazbaz is no doubt aware that none of the laid-off workers can afford to go broke waiting for the system to work. More than 14 months after the layoffs, a few have returned to their native Guatemala, and others have taken factory jobs elsewhere in the city. A recent meeting of the workers at the GANO headquarters, though well attended, reflected this inevitable attrition.
UNITE organizer Medrano is familiar with the waiting game. The union has won several similar cases in the past, but follow-through has proven tough. While they've succeeded in forcing employers to cough up back pay, few workers return to their old jobs. "Once the case has been settled," Medrano says, "everyone's gone their separate ways."
Which leaves the union where it started. Once burned, employers take extra care to keep their new workers under their thumb and the union outside the gate. "We've won cases, but we haven't won any outright contracts," Medrano admits.
With the workers scattered and the union out of the picture, operators such as Bazbaz are free to conduct business as usual. And with employees such as Lucio Aviles willing to challenge their bosses the rare exception, most of the thousands of Latino factory workers who toil in similar conditions will likely continue to suffer out of the spotlight. "That's the unfortunate thing," says Medrano. "They don't know their basic rights.