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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Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back for Bangladesh Workers

bangladesh-garment-workersRock Creek     Following the tragic garment fire fatalities and in the wake of European action finally joined by the United States in recent weeks, the Bangladesh government has finally issued new labor codes for workers in the country.   The results are disappointing despite the obvious hopes of the government that this meager effort would seem responsive to international condemnation of the lack of enforcement of safety standards and the persecution of workers and their rights to organize.

            The only thing that is totally clear is that the government still places the needs and interests of textile and other major exporters above interest in its citizens or workers in any shape or form.  Under the new code a step forward was the creation of a worker welfare fund of 5% of the profits, rather than gross sales, so this will be an area of constant contention as well, and of course there is an exemption for all manufacturers in the special export zones from making these payments despite the tens of thousands of workers employed there.  Additionally throwing another bone to manufacturers, any new business enjoys a three year grace period where strikes of any kind are banned by the government.

            Another step forward for workers in the new code discontinues the government’s practice of revealing the names of the workers signing petitions seeking a union, since that had essentially rung bells and whistles leading to the harassment, dismissal, and blackballing of many union supporters.  Some union leaders are unconvinced that the companies will not simply bribe the government labor officials and end up with the list anyway, but nonetheless, this is a step forward as is a commitment to require permitting for any factory owner who seeks to add additional floors to its physical plant.  Of course the government also lengthened the list of industries, including hospitals, where workers were barred from organizing.

            According to the New York Times, Human Rights Watch monitoring this situation believes that the new labor code makes it even harder to organize unions and sees the government’s effort as unlikely to assuage the concern of the global community.

            Part of the beef is the threshold showing of interest that triggers requirements to negotiate with a union.  In Bangladesh, as in most countries in Asia, there is no exclusive representation meaning that there is no situation where only one union represents all the workers in a site or with an employer.  In a multi-union organizing environment representation is “members-only,” meaning that once the threshold is achieved, the employer has to bargain at some level with any – and all – unions that reach the minimums.  In the old code and the new one, the threshold is 30% of the workforce and unions and their supporters had been lobbying for a lower number closer to 10%.  Employers don’t want to deal with a passel of different unions with different interests and, particularly in Bangladesh, different relationships with political parties that can sometimes lead to labor unrest and strikes prompted by issues before the government.  Workers can sign for more than one union, but clearly it is difficult to imagine one union getting 30% and others also getting 30%, almost forcing unions into a minority status, even if the majority of workers might favor a union, just different unions.  At the same time clearly the strategy of the government is to hope that 30% looks like an insignificant number in the global community where the standard is more frequently exclusive representation based on proving a majority.

            The one thing that the Bangladesh government correctly understands is that the worldwide ignorance about unions gives them a strong hand is keeping them either on a short lease or at arms’ length, but in this case 1200 deaths may make the whitewash hard to ignore.

 

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