Teaching Houston’s School District a Lesson about Basic Workers Rights

New Orleans      There are some universal principles in work.  Almost everyone dislikes their boss is one for sure.  Almost no one likes the union representative except union members and the workers who are looking for one is another for sure.

Texas is a funny state when it comes to workers and unions.  Once again, the legislature has shut its doors and no matter how bright red the state is seen, once again they failed to move forward on a bill to deny all payroll deductions for public sector workers.  This has bill has been a favorite of the Republican majority every two years.  This was the third session where it jumped out of the gate and, arguably, with new leadership in the legislature no longer bottling it up as too contentious, was the time most likely for it to pass.  A funny thing happened on the way to this term though.  The voters spoke loudly by flipping seats and sending more Democrats and diversity to the body.  Beto O’Rourke may not be ready for primetime in the presidential sweepstakes, but his coattails in his Senate race helped make this happen and the mossbacks saw the sun shining for the first time in decades, and they were truly afraid of the light.  They just didn’t want the fight, and we’re thankful for another two years with this gift of grace.

Despite the fact that Texas is a hardcore right-to-work state, the state constitution would shock many for its from-the-rooftops shouting guarantee that all workers have the right to organize and to join unions of their choice in the workplace.  Sadly, the constitution is also clear that such workers do not have the right to sign agreements with their public employers, but you take the lemons and try to make lemonade in building unions in the state.

All of this would seem to be old news for the Houston Independent School District (HISD), one of the largest public-school operations in the country.  Local 100 United Labor Unions has enjoyed and represented members in the district for twenty-seven years now, since 1992, as the largest union of cafeteria and janitorial workers there throughout this time.  Most recently we won a wage increase for such workers at the school board level.  We may not be well loved by the district, but we are certainly well known to them.

Over recent years their most aggressive pushback has been to try and deny access to our organizers, particularly Orell Fitzsimmons, a veteran of all twenty-seven of our years in the district.  Several years ago, they tried to restrict us when we began talking to parents as well as workers about lead in the water fountains and demanded, successfully, that all fountains be tested, and then replaced.  When we demanded they provide purified water, they went overboard.

That storm passed, but recently another ban was ordered.  The offense?  We were working with custodians employed by their subcontractor, Metro, who wanted to organize a union.  The first hearing on this matter revealed that HISD didn’t even investigate whether there was an access problem.  They got a call from Metro saying deny access to Local 100, and their knee jerked, and they kicked us out.

This too will quickly pass with more embarrassment for HISD as the school system is being taught a lesson about workers’ rights, simple grievance handling and investigation, and just maybe as an entity of the state, also learning about the Texas constitution and the rights of workers, even subcontracted workers, they are mandated to protect.

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