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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Local 100 Puts Cowboys Owner Jones on Notice While Withdrawing NLRB Charge

New Orleans  Local 100 United Labor Unions notified NLRB Region 16 that it was withdrawing the charge filed over two weeks ago over threats made by Dallas Cowboy’s owner, Jerry Jones, to “bench” his players of they protested during the national anthem.

In a press release describing its action, Local 100 said the following about the situation:

…withdrawing its NLRB charges at this time, Local 100 did so because the National Football League after meeting with the owners and players has ruled that there will be no discipline of players for utilizing their “platform” and protesting the societal situation of racial injustice and police brutality that is impacting their working conditions and lives. Furthermore, the NFL committed to continued dialogue about these situations and taking positive, though unnamed steps, to address them in the larger community. NLRB rules allow the union to refile these charges at any time.

Since the filing of Local 100’s charges, Jones has not repeated the threats against the players that were the subject of the charges. United Labor Unions’ Chief Organizer, Wade Rathke said, “If Jerry Jones threatens or disciplines any players of the Dallas Cowboys despite the clear position of the NFL and others, we will immediately refile these charges with the NLRB and pursue them to their conclusion. We are hopeful that Jones has learned that there are legal limits that guide his treatment of his workforce and rights that cannot be abridged, regardless of his own personal opinion. We will continue to monitor this closely. We hope a lesson was learned, and that we had some small impact on this debate, and the actions of the NFL doing the right thing.”

Has Jones really learned his lesson? We hope so, but we doubt it. We believe in fact that it is more likely that a combination of our action emboldening his own lawyers to tell him he was across the line and to shut up, the NFL overlords telling him his position was untenable and he needed to back up, and the anger of his own players at his bullying all forced him in retreat. As cbssports.com reported among many others, “Cowboys players were reportedly angered by Jones’ public hard-line stance, and the team had a meeting with Jones about it during the bye week.” There were no public comments, but privately it was well-known that players told Jones he was out of line.

The final straw convincing the union that it was best to withdraw for now and leave the matter hanging became clear after Jones’ vacillating in reaction to defensive tackle David Irving raising his fist after anthem in the last game. Jones tried to walk the line saying as long as it was not during the anthem, no problem. Jones again was exposed as “all talk, no cattle.” Or, as The Nation’s David Zirin has written, “… the fact Jerry Jones now has to smile his way through it is just another sign of how much ground the owners lost and how much of their own humanity the players have reclaimed.”

And, besides reclaiming their “humanity,” the players have also learned the power of their labor rights both under the NLRA and their own contract, which the NFLPA shrewdly enforced in the meeting with the owners. As Local 100’s statement said as well, we were

…also glad that … [our] action in stepping in to file charges against Jones and Cowboys for their treatment of their players ignited a national debate about the rights and entitlements the players had as workers under the National Labor Relations Act. Lawyers, professors, and others have joined the debate in newspapers, blogs, and websites on the question with the preponderance of them supporting Local 100’s standing to file and the fact that the union drew attention to the role of the NLRA in protecting workers’ rights in these situations. The union is hoping that its action will prompt other workers caught in difficult situations in their jobs, too often unrepresented, to understand the law and take advantage of its provisions to protection themselves and exercise their rights.

This clearly isn’t over. The protests, though diminished, continue. And so does the debate, and that’s a good thing for the players, the cause, and workers and their communities everywhere.

Professor Tim Wu, free speech, computer expert, and occasionally columnist for the New York Times threw another brick at the window, this time at the White House, which was pulling the strings on the Cowboys’ Jones, saying...

…the White House needs to be held accountable when it tries to use private parties to circumvent First Amendment protections. When it encourages others to punish its critics — as when it demanded that the N.F.L., on pain of tax penalties, censor players — it is wielding state power to punish disfavored speech. There is precedent for such abuses to be challenged in court.

The fat lady won’t sing on this one until victory is complete. There will be many test questions in the future for Jerry Jones and his ilk on the lessons they are being forced to learn now.

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