After a Twenty Year Campaign, Aramark and Privatization Shown the Door in Houston

New Orleans  It was a “pinch me” moment when the news finally broke that after United Labor Unions Local 100’s 20-year fight to get rid of Aramark as the food service subcontractor in the giant Houston Independent School District, they were finally being shown the door. The district was close lipped about its decision to not renew the $6 million contract with Aramark, but news reports were clear that the constant complaints and criticisms from food service workers was a critical factor.

Undoubtedly, the soaring cost of this privatization fiasco in Houston was also part of the problem. As the report indicated, there were few sweet nothings being whispered in anyone’s ears about this divorce. Aramark making sure that it left the district with as bad a taste in their mouths as the children they had been feeding, threw a rock through their own glass window dredging up a story from the last century alleging mismanagement of the district of the cafeteria operation. Their parting shot, we took as a relief, because it indicates that they know they won’t be back so they saw no risk in fouling the trough where they have gorged for decades.

Our members are celebrating because they paid for this contract with overwork and underpay, as the food service workforce was decimated in order to line Aramark’s pockets. Where individual schools had previously enjoyed a modicum of oversight and quality control, Aramark lopped off hundreds of jobs in order to establish a central kitchen that would deliver tens of thousands of meals to the individual schools. It’s not hard to imagine the daily problems of such a mammoth enterprise!

Local 100 was recently successful in winning an agreement from the HISD to raise the wages for food service workers, and more recently has been campaigning to win an increase in hours for their work in order to improve service and food delivery for the children. Another factor may be the level of lead found in many of the water fountains and kitchen faucets after Local 100 forced the district to begin a comprehensive testing program.

Recent studies by researchers from Massachusetts and Sweden found that outsourcing workers through privatization imposed a wage penalty of up to 7% for janitors and up to 24% for security guards. The same has been true for food services workers, though perhaps worse, because they often have had to endure split shifts and part-time work hours, often lucky to make six hours a day during the school year. The much-loved and iconic “lunch ladies” by children and parents have been starving and impoverished by Aramark for much of their careers.

Despite the horrors of privatization for the last several decades in Houston, the ideology of privatization more than the economics will continue to be at the heart of every campaign as businesses continue to search for profit by pretending that they are always more efficient and better at delivering public services than government, when their only real skill is reducing wages, hours, and workers and in food service, cheaper, low-quality food. At least in Houston we can enjoy the victory for a minute, but there’s still no cure for the plague.

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Please enjoy Pokey LaFarge’s Riot in the Streets.

Thanks to KABF.

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Getting the Lead Out of Schools

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New Orleans       Increasingly, we are going to ask which school district is going to be the last one to stand up for its children and workers and test for lead.  There really is no rational reason in the face of the devastation that lead brings to children and others and the overwhelming evidence of its ubiquitously destructive impact in schools, and for that matter, other public buildings, for any steward of public trust and responsibility not to assure communities that they are protecting the safety of families and workers.

            After our success in Houston in winning testing for lead in all the districts’ water fountains and other water sources, and what seemed to be the quick agreement in New Orleans to move in the same direction, we have been heartened.  Attention is growing as well.  PBS is coming to New Orleans to film ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice and LSU Health Science Center’s testing program in both the schools and adjoining neighborhoods.  A lead education program that is embedded in the ACV housing education classes is also going to be filmed and featured.   Three New Orleans schools have already been tested for the impact of lead on both the soil and water sources.  The PBS angle focuses on the way in which science is being used as a tool for change in the communities, which seems spot on in this fight.

Local 100 United Labor Unions was somewhat surprised that Dallas continued to drag its heels in responding to us on this issue.  With fall and the return of classes, a meeting with a school board member and resumption of school board meetings as well as an emerging coalition of various groups united in their call for such testing, found a positive response finally.  Not only are they going to do the testing, but the Dallas Independent School District also finally agreed with our position to test retirees that had been exposed to lead and other chemicals in the warehouses.

            Dallas had little choice as well because they were beginning to seem a pariah in the metroplex.  Fort Worth had already not only agreed to test all of its water fountains, but having found evidence of lead already in several of them, has moved to replace them.  Arlington, half-way between Dallas and Fort Worth, has also announced a testing program as well.  Other school districts in the Houston area, including neighboring suburban districts of Alief and Cypress-Fairbanks are also moving forward on a testing plan now.   In Texas, districts are beginning to fall in line, but although Local 100’s representative in Arkansas reported some success in lining up allies among teacher groups to push for testing in Little Rock and Pulaski County, both districts are still lagging, even as so many of the trains have pulled out of the station on this issue.

            Other public buildings where we clean, as well as state and public facilities where our members work, are high on our list as well.  The simple rule of thumb should be that wherever there is a public water fountain, there needs to be a lead test. 

How hard is that to get done?

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More Lead Drama in Schools, but More Progress

Testing of Lead in School Drinking Fountains

Testing of Lead in School Drinking Fountains

New Orleans  Why aren’t all school districts in the country simply crying “Uncle” and conceding that they will test all of their schools for lead in the water? They must know this is a tide coming towards them that they cannot resist. Yet, still we find foot dragging and, in some cases, the flimsiest of excuses thrown in our way.

Last time we visited this topic, we were noting the progress made by Local 100 with the officials of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) on this issue. As we reported, they were willing to finally accelerate the testing program so that all schools in the district would be tested within 2 to 3 years, rather than the 30 plus they had initially proposed at 10 or so per year. All good. Real progress!

But, not so fast. When Orell Fitzsimmons, director of Local 100’s office in Houston talked to them in more detail about the testing program and shared information about other school districts’ program, it turned out that they were NOT planning to test any of the water fountains. Bizarre, since this is perhaps the main entry point for water to get in our little darlings’ systems. When pushed by the union and some of our school board allies, the response from the district was, “No problem. We have filters on all of the water fountains.” Problem solved.

No, Fitzsimmons and some of our members in maintenance then checked on the water fountains including the models and serial numbers. Whoops! Turns out filters were not installed on water fountains of that era. So, check and checkmate, and the district has now agreed to check all of the water fountains. The question that lingers here and elsewhere, is why the obfuscation. We’re talking about children and their safety. Why play games?

There’s also progress in New Orleans finally. A front page story on lead and a picture of leaders and members from A Community Voice, affiliated with ACORN International, demanding testing in all of the schools is finally making progress. It’s slippery, but the response has come from one of the school board members indicating they will test all schools and are going to use the better protocols from West Virginia which have become the standard nationally exceeding that of the EPA. Louisiana is also pushing the Orleans School board to notify all parents that they need to have their children tested in conformity with Louisiana State law. Needless to say that it’s happening.

Meanwhile, Local 100 members are on the move towards the school board meeting in Dallas and Little Rock at the end of this month to demand testing in these district as well. A meeting with retired workers with lead exposure is also being scheduled in Dallas. It will be interesting to see whether Dallas and Little Rock are learning something from other districts and ready to say “Uncle” and get on with it, or is going to drag this out at the risk of more workers and students?

ACV action on Lead in Water in NOLA Schools

ACV action on Lead in Water in NOLA Schools

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech assembling lead testing kits

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech assembling lead testing kits

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Leaders Assess Progress and Map Out Plans

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reports and campaign discussions in Baton Rouge Local 100 Union Hall

Baton Rouge   Thirty Local 100 United Labor Union leaders gathered together for the 36th annual leadership conference for the union, this time in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Leaders were there from Little Rock and Warren, Arkansas, Dallas and Houston, Lafayette and New Orleans, and points near and far in the three-state areas. We met in Local 100’s big 5000 plus foot union hall in Baton Rouge, so that the members could see first had what had been done to improve the space, and what still needed to be done. It was a hot, mid-90’s June day, but the 10-foot ceilings and thick cinderblock walls made the large meeting room pleasant with five fans running. That is not to say the leadership won’t take a harder look at the thousands needed to repair the air conditioner, but it was a lot better than people had any reason to expect. They were surprised, and I felt lucky, or as I reminded many of them, “tell me you can’t remember visiting your grandmother in the country and hearing the ceiling and attic fans humming?”

A lot of time in the morning was spent reviewing our progress on living wage campaigns or more accurately moving the minimum wages up. In Houston, we had success in both our Head Start unit as well as moving the ages up past $10 per hour for our cafeteria workers. The lesson we had learned, according to Houston office director, Orell Fitzsimmons, was to not try to grab all 30,000 workers in the district at once, but to concentrate on one segment after another. Having raised the hourly wage in the cafeteria, the union is now hunkering down to try to extend the hours from seven to eight to move people up more solidly. In Arkansas, the union with our allies are trying to push a statewide petition of workers and supporters to set the floor above $10 per hour. Winning an election could be difficult, but having our members who are state workers living in poverty is even harder. In Dallas and New Orleans there have been efforts that have met with some success at establishing levels past $10 per hour for subcontracted workers, but in those cities, especially New Orleans, the issue is enforcement. One cleaning contract we organized recently is now six-months overdue on paying the new city standard of $10.55 per hour. I can remember years ago a hotel union in San Jose-Monterrey saying they didn’t want to support our living wage fight because then why would workers need a union? It turns out part of the answer is: they would still need a union to actually get it!

On other fronts, the union is preparing campaigns to advocate to get lead tested and removed from schools and workplaces to protect our workers, children and clients. We are also going after nonprofit hospitals to hold them accountable for providing charity care, especially in Texas where there is no expanded Medicaid and elsewhere in our private sector contracts where the deductibles are pricing our members out of the company-sponsored plans and into the penalties for not having Obamacare.

Will we come up with the money to fix the air conditioner? I don’t know, but we’ll win some big campaigns because of leadership meetings just like this!

reports and campaign discussions in Baton Rouge Local 100 Union Hall

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Janitors Call Me, Jamie, and He Does, Maybe

New Orleans   At the end of a fascinating planning meeting in a living room in Austin during a welcome all day of rain, I thought I would add some fun to the end of this productive session by making a suggestion that when the new organization got up and running with a website, here was a good, effective use of a video.  We then huddled around to enjoy the cute, clever version of “Call Me, Maybe” done by Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) strikers from several elementary schools that I ran yesterday.  One of the participants in the organizing meeting asked if we had seen a similar effort by Houston janitors on strike last month at the JP Morgan Chase building there.  I hadn’t but we found it on Youtube and pulled it up:

In trying to force the company’s hands, the union had produced this video as part of an on-line campaign to support the strikers I learned later.  The hook had been that one of strike leaders had managed to get within earshot of Chase CEO Jamie Dimon at a Washington hearing and he had yelled back, “call my office,” and so they were.  The on-line campaign involved advertisements that SEIU paid for on hundreds of websites in a half-dozen major cities around the country.  I was told that Dimon did finally call the janitors back, though that was harder to clarify from a Google search.  At the end of the line, Houston janitors settled after a 4-week strike involving 3000 janitors for $1 raise over 4-years, so, everything being equal which we all understand it never really is, I would say the strike was successful.

And, the on-line campaign and the video tactic?  Probably less so.  Youtube says there were about 2000 hits on the video over the last 6-weeks.  That’s respectable of course, but nothing to Jamie Dimon and Chase other than an annoyance in all likelihood and hardly a game changer.  The fact that Chase and SEIU Local 1 are both headquartered in Chicago and that all of the major strike targets were big multinational companies with Houston branch offices makes it more likely that this was an old-school union pressure and leverage victory that was impossible without janitors hitting the street in Houston, but likely settled in the way many of these building service strikes are handled.  The video was likely great for morale for the strikers and their supporters and absolutely another valuable arrow in the tactical quiver, but no more than that.

The real value is likely in the shadow of what one sees in the Chicago teachers video as a model for this type of thing.  The teachers have gone from 14000 hits when I first looked 24 hours ago to over 20,000 now as I write this, but what makes both work is the fact that when the viewers like us are reached the strikers are humanized.  In the Chicago case these were elementary school teachers who were obviously united, talented, and the kind of people you would love to have leading your own children in the classroom sending a message not just to Mayor Rahm Emmanuel but to their own students.   You also got the feel that they had done this on their own rather than through some union public relations firm or communications department.

Regardless the teachers – and the janitors – are teaching us and raising the bar.  As organizers we’ve always said that “actions have to be fun,” and both in these videos set out to prove that axiom and put the pressure on at the same time.

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Houston’s Central City Ghost Town

Houston Light Rail

Houston    For a change it wasn’t work.  We were in Houston during the weekend to celebrate the wedding of Emma Graves Fitzsimmons and Gerry Smith.  First time ever any of us had attended a wedding reported in the New York Times.  It goes without saying that Emma’s job on the national desk of the Times and her marriage to Gerry, a reporter for Huffington Post, so no slouch, had a lot to do with it.  Good times or bad Times, having been at the wedding of her parents and known her since birth, we wouldn’t have missed the event for the world.  They were deliriously happy, which might not be enough to change my views about marriage, but certainly was enough to convince me that the culture has a couple of strong and persuasive advocates still.  Anything that for any reason can make two people that happy, has to have some real value.

I was also excited to have an excuse to be back in downtown Houston, 4th largest city in the United States.  We found a hotel right next to the new light rail system running down Main Street.  I could hardly wait to see it.  I could remember the arguments both pro and con about light rail when ACORN first opened our office in Houston in 1976 and now more than 30 years later, here it was.  It was beautiful, too.  Long and sleek.  At some points along its route there were watercourses.  At dawn, I watched a young woman absorbed in her cell phone with the water placidly reflecting the last shadows of the night behind her.  She was also about the only person I saw anywhere around either then or the evening before.   The light rail might be called light because its passenger loads were infinitesimally small with trains passing with only a couple of people aboard.

We were in a virtual ghost town.  In fact walking early in the morning the number of For Lease signs and vacant properties throughout the main streets of this thriving commercial center were mindboggling.  I started to wonder whether or not the buses coming up one street and the rail going down another had severed the arterial passages to the heart of the city?  Rather than attracting businesses to the pathways along the speedy rail line, it almost seemed like businesses were in full flight.

Nothing was open.  There was no place for even as much as a cup of coffee.  It felt like we had stumbled into the valleys of an urban desert walking between modern skyscrapers.  Even in Detroit, which once was the 4th largest city, I could have found a diner.  What had happened to Houston and its “catch the horse by the tail” bold and brash Texas shout to the urban future?  Had this slipped into the bayou with Enron?  Been lost in the skepticism attending a future with diminishing oil?

I love Houston, but I couldn’t help feeling with every block I stepped off along the miles of my walk that something was terribly wrong.

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