New issues challenge janitors union – Houston Chronicle

As it tries to ramp up public pressure against cleaning companies, the union seeking a new contract for 3,200 Houston janitors is meeting impediments it didn’t face six years ago when it won its first contract.

The Service Employees International Union has expanded impromptu strikes at the large office buildings its janitors clean. It also has disrupted meetings and has conducted traffic-blocking demonstrations that have led to 18 arrests as it seeks to increase what it calls “street heat” against business owners and cleaning contractors.

For several reasons, however, the janitors aren’t much closer to wage increases and other benefits than they were when the union left the bargaining table in mid-May, two weeks before its contract expired.

Union contractors don’t control as much of the cleaning market as they did in 2006, for one thing. And despite escalating walkouts, buildings are still getting cleaned. SEIU also faces distractions in Chicago, where city officials are considering awarding cleaning duties to a nonunion contractor at O’Hare International Airport.

“I don’t sense the same kind of pressure” as in 2006, said management lawyer Bill Bux of the firm Locke Lord. That year, he said, some clients were “scared to death” about such job actions as picketing and disruptions in buildings.

“Now they’re realizing SEIU is a paper tiger,” said Bux, who isn’t involved in the negotiations.

And, he said, it’s harder for the union members to win sympathy in an economy where many people work full time at lower wages than the union janitors.

In 2006, five union companies controlled 72 percent of the local market for cleaning offices larger than 100,000 square feet.

Today, union companies control 67 percent of that market, according to SEIU spokeswoman Renee Asher.

Six years ago SEIU was negotiating on behalf of 5,300 cleaners, compared with the 3,200 today. And the SEIU counts 40 percent of those as members.

Asher believes the strike will be settled when the big building owners – who want to be perceived as good corporate citizens -tell the contractors to pay higher wages. It will take pressure from the community, she said.

But Julius Getman, a labor specialist at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, speculates that SEIU has been focusing more on a top-down hierarchy rather than building from the bottom up.

“If you’re doing a sit-down and you are not having the rank and file participate, that’s a bad sign,” said Getman, referring to this week’s arrests in Houston of several out-of-state protesters – none of whom were janitors.

“It’s like ‘Hamlet’ without Hamlet if you don’t have your members committed to the union and willing to struggle on its behalf,” said Getman, author of “Restoring the Power of Unions: It takes a Movement.”

In a recent letter to its customers, the Houston Area Contractors Association said strike participation has been limited to a handful of one-day actions at selected sites and that the work is still getting done.

“Although the SEIU has been touting high participation, we estimate that some 98 percent of available staff have ignored the purported ‘city-wide strike,'” according to the letter.

Asher disputed the notion that janitor participation is weak.

“Building owners always say that,” she said.

At least 400 Houston janitors are on strike, said Asher, adding that even replacement workers have walked out.

The janitors, who earn a top wage of $8.35 an hour, are seeking $10 an hour. While the contractors and janitors were far apart on the wage issue, another point is a deal-breaker.

Union officials object to contractors’ interpretation that a clause in the previous contract, which contractors want included in a new one, would allow them to pay less-than-union wages if they were bidding for a job against a non-union contractor.

“Contractors could bid non-union anytime and anywhere,” said Asher. “It would lower standards tremendously.”

The janitors are represented by SEIU Local 1, which is based in Chicago. Tom Balanoff is the president of the local and the chief negotiator for the janitors in Houston.

He and Local 1 have had their hands full in Chicago, however, as the city is weighing whether to accept a cheaper bid from a non-union cleaning company at O’Hare Airport. The move would mean the loss of jobs for union janitors.

Sarah Hamilton, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said the city is still evaluating its options, but must award the contract to the lowest “responsible” bidder.

via New issues challenge janitors union – Houston Chronicle.

Probation agency pays Aliviane twice contract value – El Paso Times

A lawsuit is questioning ties between the probation department, formally known as West Texas Community Supervision and Corrections Department, and Aliviane Inc., an El Paso nonprofit group that is under investigation by the FBI.

The amended lawsuit, which claims an employee was improperly fired because of her age, was filed late last month in state court. It includes documents showing that on March 28, 2011, the probation department signed a $49,999 no-bid contract with Aliviane for drug and alcohol treatment that runs through Aug. 31.

Records at the county auditor’s office show that by the end of last month, the probation department had paid Aliviane more than $100,000.

The lawsuit also claims that a former manager for Aliviane, Armando Salas, played a key role in firing the woman who filed the suit, Connie Dubiel, before Salas was hired as temporary clinical supervisor on Oct. 23.

A grievance panel later recommended that Dubiel be reinstated with back pay and that her attorney’s fees be paid by the probation department. But Maggie Morales-Aina, director of the probation department, last week said she couldn’t comment on why she didn’t follow the grievance committee’s recommendation because of Dubiel’s lawsuit.

“I will not discuss any pending litigation out of respect for the person involved and out of respect for the process,” Morales-Aina said.

Officials with Aliviane and the probation department said Salas — who hasn’t worked at Aliviane in five years —

had nothing to do with Aliviane’s contract to provide residential drug treatment to offenders who are on probation. Salas used to run Aliviane’s residential drug-treatment center in Socorro, said Steven Hernsberger, Aliviane’s attorney.

Probation officials said they contracted with Aliviane and several other agencies for in-patient drug and alcohol treatment in March 2011 when a three-member leadership team took over the financially troubled agency. There was a long waiting list for services and the probation department stood to lose state funding for them if it didn’t spend the money quickly, said Annalisa Davila, who was a member of the leadership team in March 2011.

State law requires in most instances that government contracts for more than $50,000 be competitively bid, so entering into multiple contracts of $49,999 each allowed the agency to obtain services more quickly, said Davila, who is now deputy director of the probation department.

“This allowed us to provide immediate services to our offenders and afforded us to use the (substance-abuse treatment) money as it was originally intended and not return unspent … funding back to the state,” Davila said in a June 29 email.

The FBI has said it is investigating Aliviane, but it hasn’t said what it is looking into. Aliviane’s longtime CEO, Cirilo “Chilo” Madrid, was indicted last December on charges that he participated in a scheme to bribe former County Judge Dolores Briones and defraud a program meant to help children with severe mental illnesses. Madrid resigned from Aliviane early this year.

Briones pleaded guilty in December in a separate proceeding. Madrid’s co-defendant, Ruben “Sonny” García, is expected to plead guilty today.

García’s companies, LKG Enterprises and Garrson, were paid more than $680,000 to evaluate Aliviane programs between 2001 and 2010. LKG was indicted along with García and Madrid on charges that they bribed Briones in 2005 to obtain a $600,000 evaluation contract and then failed to deliver services.  read more…

via Probation agency pays Aliviane twice contract value – El Paso Times.

King: Public employee unions should take lead on pension reform – Houston Chronicle

Several years ago, I helped form the Fire Fighter’s Foundation of Houston. Since its organization, the foundation has raised more than $1 million to fund the purchase of specialized equipment and training facilities for the Houston Fire Department.

Because of my support for the department through the foundation, many firefighters were dismayed when I began to call attention to the problems with the city’s pension plans. I had breakfast last year with a group of firefighters to try and explain what they saw as a contradiction between my support for their foundation and my concerns about the city’s pension plans.

What I shared with them that morning was this simple fact: Financially unsustainable pensions are a bad deal for public employees. This is true because eventually, as it becomes apparent to the public that the pensions are unsustainable, it will ultimately lead to a fight between taxpayers and public employees. And the public employees are going to lose that fight every time.

There was a great deal of skepticism regarding my views that morning, but I believe the election results in Wisconsin and California last week have shown I was correct.

In Wisconsin, of course, Gov. Scott Walker handily held off a recall effort organized by public employee unions angry over his moves to limit their power. In San Jose and San Diego, the issue was put even more sharply in focus. In both cities, voters were asked to approve substantial cuts in public employee pensions. In both cases, the ballot initiatives were approved by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

Polling shows similar attitudes across the country. One poll showed that 64 percent of Americans were altogether opposed to unions for public employees. Surprisingly, in that poll more than 42 percent of Democrats agreed with the majority.

We had a harbinger of this trend in Houston in 2004. The 2003 Texas Legislature approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting cities from changing pension benefits for current employees. However, the amendment contained a provision that allowed cities to opt out of the amendment if voters approved. Then newly elected Mayor Bill White called just such an election in May 2004. Houston voters approved opting out with more than 70 percent of the vote.

Many factors are working against public employees on this issue. First, most private sector employees no longer have defined benefit pension plans. According to the Department of Labor, as of 2009, there were only 18 million Americans who were active participants in a defined benefit plan in the private sector, and that number is dropping rapidly.

Second, state and local governments have felt a severe fiscal pinch in the recession. As a result, they have been forced to choose between funding their pensions or shortchanging other services. Increasingly, the public is beginning to connect the dots between ballooning pension costs and shorter library hours, fewer police officers and a variety other cutbacks.

Finally, there was a time when higher public sector pensions could be justified because public sector wages were so much lower than in the private sector. But over the last 20 years, private sector wages have stagnated while public sector compensation has been pushed steadily higher, mostly due to automatic cost of living increases. The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the total cost (including wages and benefits) of the average private sector employee at about $29 per hour, which is well below the average for state and local employees at $41 per hour.

The actuarial reports for the city of Houston’s pension plans show that by 2020, it will take nearly 50 percent of property tax receipts to fund the required pension contributions. One can only imagine the kinds of service cuts and/or tax increases it will require to sustain the plans at that point.

As I shared with my friends in the fire department at breakfast last year, if I were in a leadership position in a public employee union, I would be trying to get out ahead of this issue and propose some reasonable reforms. Simply sticking one’s head in the sand and hoping that a soaring stock market will save these plans is a recipe for disaster. And it will be disaster for both taxpayers and public employees. As last week’s elections prove, the taxpayers will have the last word.

via King: Public employee unions should take lead on pension reform – Houston Chronicle.

Texans for Secure Retirement

Texas:

  • Texas Insider: The End of Unions?
  • Leppert calls for review of Dallas city employee pension systems
  • Texas workers fear push to overhaul their pensions
  • Texas teacher pension fund gave more in bonuses than all other state agencies combined, analysis shows
  • Vegas casino owners who got teacher fund investment are Perry donors
  • Katy ISD to hold retirement forums
  • Texas public employee pensions have time to recover
  • Some employees consider retirement before May vote
  • State employees need insurance help
  • State’s public pensions rest on solid financial foundation
  • Teacher retirement fund bounces back after losses
  • State agrees to kill teacher health fee
  • Nationwide:
  • Hundreds to Rally in Front of Veterans Integrated Services Network (VISN) Headquarters to Protest Discriminatory Practices Against VA Employees
  • Strapped state pension funds take scalpel to COLAs for relief
  • US public pension funding dips on market volatility
  • Out-of-State:
  • State Politicians and the Public Pension Cookie Jar
  • General:
  • Do Republicans want to destroy public-sector jobs?
  • Forum: Public Sector Inc., results tagged “pension reform”  read more…

via Texans for Secure Retirement.

New Republic: In Praise Of Public Employee Unions : NPR

Timothy Noah is a senior editor at The New Republic.

In the wake of the failed Wisconsin recall vote we’re hearing an awful lot about those spoiled government employees with their flush pay packages and their godawful unions. The worst, of course, are the teachers’ unions. They are responsible for everything that’s gone wrong in America today. Government leaders urge that they restrain their demands, but in vain.

But according to this June 5 article from the Dallas Morning News, Dallas’s incoming superintendent of schools — a government leader, right? — will enjoy a base salary of $300,000. His chief of staff will make $225,000. His chief of communications (i.e., press agent) will make $185,000. And his “chief of talent and innovation,” whatever that is (it’s a new position), will make $182,000.

All of these people make more money than the Dallas police chief, who makes do with about $175,000. Meanwhile, those greedy Dallas teachers, who are represented by the American Federation of Teachers, bump along with an average salary of about $56,000. That’s nearly 20 percent below the average household income in the U.S. ($67,530).

Being a teacher is back-breakingly difficult work. It is also extremely important work. Being the press agent or innovation chief for the school superintendent is, by comparison, fairly easy, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the hours are much shorter. It’s also fairly trivial. Being superintendent or the superintendent’s chief of staff is important work, but there’s no chance it’s as difficult as being a teacher, and I hesitate to say that it’s as important. The boss always makes more, and I guess we can’t begrudge him that. But for the boss to make more than six times more than the average teacher is freaking outrageous.

“It certainly sends up red flags to the employees and to the taxpayers of this city,” Rena Honea, president of the AFT local in Dallas, told me. That’s especially true, she noted, at a time when funding for public education is being cut state- and citywide, when teachers’ workdays are being extended 45 minutes with no additional pay, and when teachers can’t get a contract that extends more than a single year. If current economic circumstances require sacrifices from underpaid Dallas schoolteachers, why the hell don’t they require sacrifices from the superintendent and his entourage?

via New Republic: In Praise Of Public Employee Unions : NPR.

Texas Insider » The End of Unions?

The only political entity that might have had a worse week than President Obama last week was the public sector union.

For the third time in 14 months, a full-throated attempt from labor to exact retribution on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) for curtailing collective bargaining rights for public sector unions fell flat.

And it’s got some writing the obituary of the public sector union, arguing that it will soon join the private sector union in the realm of the politically irrelevant.

Which makes sense in some ways, and doesn’t in others.

As Obama noted in a rather inartful way on Friday, the economic recession has hit government employees harder than the private sector. It’s natural during time of austerity for politicians to target public employees for cuts and create conflict; the unhelpful side effect if you’re labor is that this occurs at a time when those same cutbacks are also creating less union members overall.

So it’s not surprising to see the unions at a weak point right now.

But it’s also pretty clear that the public sector union’s political capital is heading in one direction – down.

Over the last several decades, unions have increasingly fallen out of favor with the American public. While Gallup polling showed 72 percent approved of unions in 1936 and 60 percent did in 2007, that number has since dipped below 50 percent.

That means that, when these unions are embattled, there are fewer people ready to stand up for them. The result, as we saw in Wisconsin and on ballot measures in San Jose and San Diego stripping public employees of pension benefits, is that efforts to fight back don’t have as much might behind them.

The same Gallup poll in August showed that 55 percent of Americans thought unions would be weaker in the future than they are today, versus 20 percent who thought they’d be stronger. Americans aren’t fortune-tellers, of course, but they can spot a trend.

And lastly – and perhaps most importantly – union membership continues to decline.  read more…

via Texas Insider » The End of Unions?.

Former Wood County deputy files suit against department – Longview News-Journal: Local News

QUITMAN — A former deputy with the Wood County Sheriff’s Department has filed a wrongful termination suit in federal court, saying she was terminated in retaliation for raising questions about improper activity within the department.

Samantha Sellers filed the suit this past Thursday in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Texas in Marshall. The lawsuit names the county, Sheriff Bill Wansley, Chief Deputy Wes Criddle and Lt. Jerry Blaylock.

Wansley, who is running for re-election in Tuesday’s election, did not respond to numerous requests for comment. Neither did Blaylock.

Criddle said via email he had not been served with notice of the lawsuit.

“We have received an EEOC charge,” he said, “which our attorneys are addressing.”

Wood County District Attorney Jim Wheeler said the county has retained outside counsel in the matter, and that he was not at liberty to discuss pending litigation.

The lawsuit, which was filed by Gilmer attorney Jarom Tefteller, says Seller’s dismissal from the department was in retaliation for whistle blowing, and was in violation of county policy.

She is asking for back pay, unpaid entitlements, benefits and attorney’s fees. Sellers is seeking a trial by jury.

Wansley hired Sellers as a deputy on Aug. 3, 2009. The trouble began, according to the filing, when Sellers reported several incidents involving male deputies and supervisors committing acts of violence, alcoholism, and malfeasance while in uniform and using county property on and off duty.

The suit outlines incidents beginning in January 2010 including drunken driving, improper driving, physical abuse and harassment, which Sellers reported with no or little apparent repercussions for the offending deputies. One coworker, according to the lawsuit, was given a 15-day suspension and another quit and “was given an honorable discharge.”

In September 2010, the lawsuit says, Sellers was informed by Wansley she was the subject of an internal investigation by Blaylock. The investigation was said to be for violating an unnamed section of the policy for not reporting to the Texas Department of Child Protective Services an incident regarding an off-duty gathering at the home of her supervisor. According to the suit, Sellers’ supervisor was inebriated at the gathering and later became abusive to his spouse and shot up his own home.

Sellers was informed she would be suspended for 30 days, under an order signed by Wansley. However, the suit says, Criddle told her he would tell her when to serve the suspension because of staffing issues, and she had served only half of it by March 2011. Sellers was asked to sign an extension of her suspension.

Subsequently Sellers filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the sheriff’s department alleging she was suspended for matters that her fellow male coworkers were not.

She also filed a grievance with the county, which was denied.

Sellers was terminated from her position as a deputy on Feb. 15, an act her suit says deprived her of her rights to due process.

via Former Wood County deputy files suit against department – Longview News-Journal: Local News.

Edcouch-Elsa coach cleared of wrong doing, resigns : News : ValleyCentral.com

The former high school head baseball coach, Sergio Rubio, decided to part ways with Edcouch-Elsa ISD and resigned at Wednesday’s board meeting.

School board members for the Edcouch-Elsa ISD started off the special meeting with a closed session to decide Rubio’s fate.

He and his attorney had filed a grievance to get his job as head baseball coach back following his suspension over school bus video which allegedly shows sex acts between two students after a game.

After about 20 minute, the school board and Rubio reached an agreement.

The board voted unanimously to clear him of any wrong doing, and accept his resignation.

Following the board decision, Action 4 News also caught up with Sabrina Franco, the wife of the assistant coach George Franco, who was fired following this scandal.

It all started back in early April when two students were caught in a sexual act on board on bus.

The board said then that both men were responsible for the students actions.

Rubio held back tears as he spoke about growing up and working in Edcouch-Elsa.

He thanked his supporters and students.

via Edcouch-Elsa coach cleared of wrong doing, resigns : News : ValleyCentral.com.

Why Houston Should Care About Public Pension Reform in Rhode Island | Inside Policy & Politics | a Chron.com blog

Last year Rhode Island enacted a most dramatic public pension system overhaul nationwide. As Houston attempts to reign in its own legacy pension troubles, it is worth examining if key components of the reform process in the Ocean State might also apply in the Lone Star State.

It might take a Democrat to pioneer change.

Both the public and union leaders are less likely to discount reform efforts initiated by Democrats as a “partisan attack,” giving credibility to pragmatic Democrats to lead on pension reform and build trust with public employees and their unions to achieve pension sustainability over multiple generations of pension beneficiaries and taxpayers. Pension reform in Rhode Island was pioneered by a Democratic state treasurer, Gina Raimondo, and written into law by a predominantly Democratic state legislature.

While Houston boasts non-partisan elections, mediating the impact of party affiliation at the local level, party identification is prominent in the highly partisan state elections. State politicians are key players in local pension policy, since state statutes govern the three pension funds, reserving only limited flexibility at the local level for the municipal and police funds (but not the firefighter fund) through respective meet-and-confer agreements.

Without support at the state level, Houston is unable to fix its structurally unsound pension system with a total unfunded liability of over $2.35 billion. In addition, The Texas Pension Review Board reports a total unfunded liability of over $42.6 billion for all pension funds in the state. Being a robust regional hub, Houston may be relied upon to generate additional tax revenue to fund insolvent pensions in other less economically fortunate cities.

Houston’s situation is just a tip of the iceberg in a nationwide pension crisis exacerbated by demographic trends of an increased longevity of retirees and fewer active payers. read more…

via Why Houston Should Care About Public Pension Reform in Rhode Island | Inside Policy & Politics | a Chron.com blog.

American labor chief to leave as airline pares job cuts in latest union offer – Business – MiamiHerald.com

DALLAS — .

American Airlines said its chief labor negotiator will leave and gave its biggest union new terms that would pare planned job cuts by 31 percent, less than two weeks after its major work groups backed a merger with US Airways.

Transport Workers Union members will vote May 10 through May 14 on American’s last contract offer, which would slim planned job cuts by at least 2,600, to 5,900, the union said. AMR Corp.’s American said its offer would save 3,100 TWU- represented jobs.

Jeff Brundage led American’s troubled labor relations for 11 years, most recently failing to win cost-cutting contracts in talks that began as far back as 2006. US Airways negotiated contracts, contingent upon a completed merger, with the unions in a period of less than two weeks. The TWU vote on its contract won’t affect the US Airways agreement, the union told members.

via American labor chief to leave as airline pares job cuts in latest union offer – Business – MiamiHerald.com.