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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Big Win for School Workers and Children in Houston

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Houston Press

Budapest   I may have drug my gear across two Metro lines and two trains and one airport in Paris to end up in Budapest meeting with Mate Varga, the head of the Civic College in Hungary, along the Danube last night with everyone watching Euro 2016, a soccer match, but my mind was also on Houston and the huge victory won by Local 100 for school workers and children. Perhaps it’s not the kind of victory many would expect, like a twenty-five cent raise or an extra break or holiday, but it was the kind of victory that highlights the kind of community-and-worker-based union that we try to build at Local 100. Simply put: we want to get the lead out!

I’m not going to pretend we were early to this fight. For yearsI have heard about the dangers of lead for children. ACORN went after Sherwin-Williams to try to force them to bear up to the responsibility for decades of lead poisoning. We fought in Argentina and Peru to keep lead from continuing to be produced in paint plants over the last decade, years after such production had been banned in the United States and Europe. Furthermore, Louisiana ACORN and then A Community Voice, was constantly involved in lead testing right under my nose in New Orleans day after day. Nonetheless, Flint, Michigan was a wakeup call for us as organizers, just as it was for the whole country. And, following up on Flint, when school districts like Newark started shutting down water fountains and bringing in bottled water for children, we finally got the message. Our union represents school workers and they, and the children they serve, may be in danger, so it was time for action.

Our members in the Houston Independent School District led the way, demanding testing in all of the schools. Orell Fitzsimmons, the office director for the union in Houston went with some of our stewards and met with some of the school trustees and raised the issue, after we got what would have to be described as a brushoff from the district on our initial requests. They had obviously decided to play ostrich on this issue, even after we independently began collecting dirt samples around the schools in Houston and Dallas.

The Houston Press and the daily Houston Chronicle finally jumped on the story with us, so I’ll let the Press tell the rest of the story:

In interviews Wednesday, before the changed policy was announced, School Board Trustee Harvin Moore and United Labor Unions Local 100 Field Director Orell Fitzsimmons said HISD officials had previously told them they planned to test only nine schools for lead each year. When asked about this plan, HISD spokeswoman Lila Hollin said Wednesday, “As far as how many and which ones, that hasn’t been decided yet.”

At a rate of only nine schools per year, with 283 schools to test, the district wouldn’t have finished its tests for more than 30 years.

Yet around 6 p.m. Wednesday, after the Press spoke with Hollin and called numerous HISD employees that day with questions about the district’s lead testing policy, Board of Education trustees received a one-paragraph email from HISD Interim Superintendent Ken Huewitt. That email said something very different.

“While we have tested a number of our schools in HISD, we have decided to take a much more proactive and aggressive approach,” Huewitt wrote in the email. “I have asked the facilities team to test all elementary schools this year. All middle schools will be tested in the 2017-2018 school year. Finally, any remaining high schools that have not been completed with the bond program will be tested in the 2018-2019 school year.”

“Results for each facility will be posted on the HISD website as well as a schedule outlining when testing will occur,” Huewitt added.

Fitzsimmons first took an interest in HISD’s lead testing policies after watching the water crisis unfold in Flint, Mich. He submitted multiple public information requests asking about HISD’s records and practices regarding testing for lead contamination, and spoke at the June 9 Board of Education meeting about the district’s need to test all of its schools for lead, starting with elementary schools – the age group most at risk for lead poisoning.

As Houston has proven, finally, on lead, you can run, but you can’t hide. Dallas is next on our target list, but, frankly, now that one district after another is getting the message that they need to do their job of protecting children in school buildings, none of us should allow any schools to not do the same.

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Leaders Talk Politics and the Need to Hunker Down

DSCN1367-1Baton Rouge   The last session of the Local 100 annual leadership conference looked at politics. The Local 100 leadership from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas is largely African-American and Hispanic and numbers more women than men. Eleven of the more than thirty in attendance were over sixty-years old. Talking to members about how they had voted in their state primaries, there weren’t any Trumpeteers in this bunch. The vast majority had ended up pulling the lever for Hillary Clinton, but Bernie Sanders had significant support as well, and the Clinton voters were sympathetic to those voters and tended to argue a more realpolitik rationale in troubled times. There was little enthusiasm or passion. Most saw it as a job to be done, and they had done their duty.

On the other hand, as the conversation tilted to November and showdown, there was deep conviction and some real excitement, not so much about Hillary, as about beating Donald Trump. They thought there was work to do and the task was unambiguous. There was no talk of “sitting it out,” but only commitments that they were “all in.” Trump had put the fear of God in the union leaders, and it translated into battle cries.

Admittedly, this is hardly a random survey. These are all leaders with long experience fighting for their rights on the job, so none hesitate when faced with another fight in another forum.

It was interesting how closely people were already following the race and the polls. Part of their motivation was to see if there was a way to pile up the score sufficiently around the country to flip the Senate and provide some margin for getting some real work done and some change from the Supreme Court to the Congress. One impact of the Senate’s refusal to hold hearings on the nomination particularly, as judged by these African-America union leaders, is that it was seen as unprecedented and therefore arguably just the latest example of a racial insult only happening because there was a black President. Who could say otherwise? The outcome of the Senate Republicans’ refusal seems to be labeling the Supreme Court as partisan as Congress, rather than a neutral administration of justice. The legacy of these actions will cast deep shadows over the future.

A chance to flip some seats in the Senate in the telling of most was less about payback and more about the chance to actually make change. In looking at the intersection of worker and community issues, the leaders had discussed their campaigns to eliminate lead in the schools and pry loose more dollars from tax exempt hospitals to fill the gap that has been created by Texas refusal to expand Medicaid and tight-fisted employers providing insurance with deductibles ranging in Local 100 companies from $3500 to $6500. A different Senate might mean real relief, and that’s also a big incentive for hard work on big turnout for November.

Not than any of the candidates are campaigning on these kinds of fundamental meat-and-potatoes issues, but people have had enough of the gridlock and stalemate. They’re swallowing hard to see if they can send a message in November and make a difference, regardless of the candidates.

workshops for stewards involved spirited participation

workshops for stewards involved spirited participation

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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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