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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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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