By James Thompson
HOUSTON – Today, November 17, 2011, the Justice Bus rolled through Houston and about 30 brave activists confronted a number of recalcitrant business owners who refused to pay their workers their just wages. The bus was arranged by the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center in an effort to fight wage theft. The bus departed from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on West Alabama in Houston and visited 5 sites. Workers also went to the Houston Police Department to file Theft of Services reports in an effort to recover their lost wages and bring consequences to their employers. They were following the new Texas Wage Theft Law, in effect since September 1, 2011 which empowers law enforcement agencies to investigate wage theft. The day ended with a visit to the Occupy Houston site at Market Square just before a powerful march to a downtown bridge. The visit was a solidarity action with the Occupy Houston movement.
Participants in the effort were a diverse group including men and women, Latinos, African Americans and Anglos. All age groups were represented as well, ranging from one baby to some elderly, retired people. Various organizations were represented to include the HIWJC, Mennonite Church, SEIU, Harris County AFL-CIO, Houston Peace & Justice Center, Houston Peace Council, Houston Peace Action, Houston Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, UAW, and others.
Participants were enthusiastic in their support of the workers and were loud and spirited. Chants included in English and Spanish “No Justice, No Peace”, “What do we want? Just wages! When do we want it? Now!”
Univision, Telemundo and the Houston Chronicle were there to report on the event.
Our first stop was at Construction Supervisors, Inc. located at 4545 Bissonnet St. Isaias Avelar and 22 other workers labored for this company, a general contractor for construction projects, for 3 months over the summer. They were usually paid in cash by one of the supervisors. Towards the end of their work, they were told they would only be paid when the project was completed, even though they were hourly employees. When the work was finished, they went to the company to receive their due payment, but the supervisor never showed up. When they demanded to speak with someone about getting paid, security was called and they were kicked out of the building. Until this day, the company has not returned their calls and they have not been paid their almost $25,000 in due wages.
The second stop was Luis Paita – Contractor located at 17121 Cardiff Rd. In March, 2011, Mr. Alcides Rodriguez worked as a subcontractor for Mr. Paita’s business, Brother’s Fireplace and Insulation, installing cellulose spray insulation. He only received $1,500 out of the agreed sum of $7,140. After attempting to negotiate with Mr. Paita, Alcides Rodrigues filed with the Small Claims Court in an attempt to recover his money. Finally in October, 2011, a judge ruled in favor of Mr. Rodriguez for the $5,640 owed for his work. However, over a month since the court’s judgment, and more than 8 months since the actual work was done, Mr. Rodriguez has still not received any payment. In September, 2009, Mr. Paita also hired Mr. Rafael Pacheco to furnish insulation work for a hotel property. In this case, Mr. Paita agreed to pay his subcontractor $25,000 for the work. However, in May of 2011, Mr. Pacheco came to the Worker’s Center because two years later, he has still not been paid by Luis Paita.
The Justice Bus or Bus de Justicia arrived at Bi-Tech Landscaping located at 2717 Lone Oak Dr. for its third stop. This private enterprise is a repeat offender when it comes to stealing from their workers. The Worker’s Center has received 3 different reports, from a total of 5 workers, who have not been paid by Bi-Tech. While the workers initially came to HIWJC because they were owed a couple of back payments, after calculating their actual pay rates and total hours worked, we discovered multiple minimum wage and overtime violations. To date, the workers are owed almost $6,000 in back pay as well.
After lunch, we proceeded to C&E Exports, Inc. located at 518 W. 25th St. Maria Cristina Galvan and Santos Claudia Villanueva were employed by C&E Exports, Inc. a Houston wholesale clothing company for 8 months in 2011. While working at the warehouse, the workers made shoes and bags, sorted large clothing shipments, and loaded and unloaded merchandise crates. They worked 6 days a week sometimes up to 12 hour days, often with no breaks and in a cramped space with no fire extinguishers, marked exits, or adequate ventilation, among other safety and health violations. Ms. Galvan and Ms. Villanueva initially came to the Worker’s Center because they weren’t fully paid for their last weeks of work. However, aside from working in these dire conditions, we discovered the workers were never paid overtime and were both making below minimum wage! The HIWJC paid a visit to C&E back in October, but they fled the premises. To this day, the workers have not been contacted or received any payment, so as we promised, “We’ll be back!”
Our final stop before going on to the Occupy Houston site was United/Continental Airlines located at 1200 McKinney. Antoinette Spencer and Elsa Erazo are two of many Bush Intercontinental Airport workers who are paid below minimum wage, have no access to healthcare benefits, and take home as little as $10,000 annually. The Houston Chronicle has written a series of articles on PrimeFlight, one of their employers, over the past several months, exposing the company’s exploitative tip policy. Workers were threatened with downsizing or termination if they failed to report tips that didn’t add up to their tip credits. This is especially troubling since the company has received over $50,000 in taxpayer money for this type of “job creation.” However, companies like Continental/United, who hire PrimeFlight, have the authority and responsibility to hire responsible contractors that provide good jobs that can support Houston families and sustain communities. An SEIU flyer says, “All over the country, people are working harder than ever and falling deeper into poverty. Currently one in four American workers is paid below the poverty level. Right here in Houston’s airports, United/Continental is profiting off this crisis. The contractors it hires pay their employees as little as $10,000 annually. Poverty-wage jobs like these hurt our whole city by contributing to foreclosures, hunger, and crime in our neighborhoods. Support Prospect employees by reaching out to the CEO of United/Continental, Jeff Smisek at (713)324-2950 and ask him to tell PrimeFlight that families can’t live on $10,000 a year. Standing up for airport workers will make our city safer and will bring us closer to restoring the balance in our economy so that it works for all people-not just those at the top.” The flyer quotes Irma Zalazar “I get paid $6.25 an hour. I like my job. I enjoy what I do, but I work very hard for passengers. I need them to tip me, otherwise I cannot put food on the table because I am not making the minimum wage.”