by Nikki van hiqhiowER
Norma Rae Lives in Brazosport
I had the pleasure of seeing the movie
Norma Rae the other night. Set in a mill
town in the South, it told the story of
one woman's struggle to improve primitive and unsafe working conditions by
unionizing a cotton mill. I left the movie
feeling inspired. Just a few days later I
encountered what appears to be a similar
situation right on the perimeters of
Houston, in Brazosport, Texas.
I addressed a women's conference at
Brazosport College. A woman stopped me
as I was about to leave. She said she had
heard of me through the Houston papers
and hoped that I could help. The story
she told me was of an all-woman cleaning
crew at Dow Chemical Plant "B".
The cleaning crew did not work directly for Dow, but rather for a firm called
U. S. Contractors which held a janitorial
service contract with Dow. The women
didn't pay much attention to that
arrangement at first, but they soon
learned that they were doing the same
work at half the wages of regular Dow
janitors. The all-male Dow crew made
$7.86 per hour, and the all-woman crew
received $3.80 to $4.25 per hour.
The women had no benefits. Dow
employees got paid holidays but the Plant
"B" cleaning crew got none. Sally
Carlsen, a spokeswoman for the crew, reported that some of them were required
to work in extremely hazardous areas
without proper safety equipment.
When conditions became intolerable
they decided to try to talk to their employer to see if they could get improvements in their working conditions.
They formed a club named "Workers
for Better Conditions" and circulated a
petition asking for an improvement in
working conditions. They soon learned
that the Dow contractor did not look
kindly on such activities. Harassment
and intimidation started. Those who were
involved in getting the petition circulated
were either fired or forced to quit.
When the cleaning crew realized what
was happening to members of their
organization, they sought the help of the
Operating Engineers, Local 564. Through
the efforts of the Local 564, charges were
filed with the National Labor Relations
Board and those employees who had been
fired or forced to quit got their jobs
On February 12, 1979, the cleaning
crew, who had voted to be represented by
Local 564, got U. S. Contractors to meet
with them to discuss their working conditions, but as it turned out there was to be
no negotiation over the problems. After
the vote to unionize, Dow had cancelled
its contract with U. S. Contractors. On
March 16, 1979, all members of the
cleaning crew at Plant "B" were discharged. Dow has now contracted with
another non-union firm which pays even
lower hourly wages.
The questions the cleaning crew are
asking themselves these days are, do they
not have the right to talk to employers
about improving conditions? Should the
penalty for questioning be the loss of
their jobs? Are benefits such as paid
holidays, vacations or safer working con
ditions such outrageous requests?
The question I would like to ask is
how much of their treatment was related
to the fact that they were all women,
most of them minorities, many single
heads of household. Some of these
women had been working on the cleaning
crew for five years. Obviously their work
must have been satisfactory. However,
as soon as they made any demands for
better conditions and unionized, the
contract for their services was cancelled.
The recipient of the new contract refused
to hire any of them.
The former cleaning crew has been
unable to get any of the Brazosport
media to cover their plight. That's life
in a company town. If you would like to
offer your help to the former cleaning
crew at Plant "B" you can call Sally Carl-
sen at 297-1375 or Bobbie Smith at
233-5283 in Brazosport. They could
really use your support.
AFDC: A Decade Behind
The term welfare, it seems, has become
virtually synonymous with fraud. The
media, and therefore the public, have
gotten so caught up in a few cases of
welfare rip-off artists, that we sometimes
forget all the others-the poor and the
needy, and the helpless—for whom
welfare is the survival link.
A report on welfare published by the
League of Women Voters reveals that in
1975, 12 percent of the nation's population had incomes below the "official"
poverty line, set at $5,500 for an urban
family of four.
The poor are mainly blacks, the elderly, families headed by women and
persons of Spanish origin. While one out
of every 11 whites lives in poverty, one
out of every three blacks and one out of
every four persons of Spanish origin live
Poverty is increasingly becoming a
problem of women and children. In 1975
nearly half of all poor families were
headed by women. While only six
percent of households headed by men
lived below the poverty level, nearly one-
third of families headed by women had
incomes below the poverty line.
It is a cruel myth that the poor are
simply those who will not work. The
League of Women Voters reports that
half the heads of poor families did work
in 1974-and almost half of those worked
year round. But even if there were jobs
available for everyone, which there are
not, there are those who cannot be
expected to work. These include the
elderly, the chronically ill and disabled,
those who care for young children and
the children themselves.
I have often heard the statement that
poor women have children just to collect
more welfare money. This is highly
unlikely considering the support system
here in Texas. The average payment per
child is $32.58 per month to cover
food, housing, utilities, personal care,
clothing and transportation. Those payments have not been raised since 1969.
Anyone with children will know how inadequate this sum is for providing a
decent standard of living.
The fraud rate is extremely low in
Texas. It ranks tenth out of ten largest
states administering the Aid to Families
with Dependent Children program. On
the other hand, Texas ranks 47th out of
50 states in the level of grant payments to
Representatives of ten church, civic,
social welfare, business and labor groups
recently testified before the Texas Senate
Finance Committee and the Texas House
Human Services Committee to recommend increasing the level of support for
Members of the community should let
their feelings on this matter be known to
their state senators and representatives.
After all, children are the products of our
entire society and we will all pay the
price for neglect.
Alimony is For People
I applaud the recent Supreme Court
decision making it unconstitutional for a
state to allow women but not men to
get alimony in divorce cases. The decision
struck down an Alabama law restricting
alimony to wives.
The decision had the predictable
response from anti-division women's
rights spokespersons. They viewed the
decision as an assault on the division of
responsibilities between men and women
—women are dependents and men are
providers. The Supreme Court acknowledged the reality of the times. Women
are often providers. Men are sometimes
dependent. More often, women and men
are providers and women and men
depend upon each other for support.
The Supreme Court decision regarding
alimony seems so fair, so decent, so obvious. The decision does not even mean
that William H. Orr of Santa Clara, California, the husband who brought the
case, will receive alimony or, on the other
hand, will not be required to pay alimony. The case merely goes back to the
Alabama Courts for reconsideration in
light of the Supreme Court's ruling on
the Alabama law.
Once again the court did not expand
its decision prohibiting sex discrimination
beyond the case at hand. This means
that other laws allowing different
treatment for males and females will
still have to be challenged on a case-by-
case basis. It is a long, tedious, and expensive affair fighting these in the legal
trenches. Although the decision in this
case will probably be used as ammunition against the Equal Rights Amendment, it should really be used as evidence
of the need for the federal amendment.
Without it, impetus to remove discriminatory laws from the books will depend
upon determined individuals who are
willing to endure the long and expensive
This case should help wake men up
to the fact that they have considerable investment in the movement for equal
rights. Equal rights under the law is for
people, not just women or just men.
Have We Got a Deal for You!
"Have We Got A Deal For You!" is the title of the lead story in a recent issue of the
Texas Observer (March 16). The reference
is to the efforts of some business lobbyists
to gut Texas' 1973 Consumer Protection
Texas has been a pioneer in the area of
consumer protection. This might seem
hard to believe given the iron-fisted grip of
corporate control on the Texas legislature,
but it is true. Through some quirk of political fate, the 63rd legislature approved
a bill giving consumers considerable power
to protect themselves.
The beauty of the present consumer law
is that it doesn't depend on public regulators, but rather builds into the private sector a self-regulating mechanism that gives
consumers incentive to defend themselves.
For the trouble of going out and hiring a
lawyer and filing suit, a consumer can collect triple damages for a business's unlawful activity. As a backup measure in the law,
the state attorney general's office can seek
civil penalities against firms engaged in
"widespread, massive abuses."
Does this sound too good to be true for
consumers? Apparently a coalition of business lobbyists (made up of six former legislators now representing the Texas Association of Business) think so. They have
plans to bring the consumer back down
to their idea of appropriate size.
The Observer reports that the gist of
the plans includes the deletion of the
"breach of express or implied warranty"
section. Noncompliance with the terms of
warranties constitutes about 75 percent
of all consumer actions. Second, recoverable damages would be limited to actual
rather than triple damages. The allowance
for triple damages makes for the self-regulating nature of the law. "It costs to cheat!"
The proposed changes also include a limit
on the actionable causes for which a consumer could bring charges. Further, abuses
by landlords, debt collectors, door-to-door
solicitors, and mobile home sellers would
be exempted from prosecution. The above
list does not fully cover all the mutations
in store for the Consumer Protection Act,
but I'm sure you get the idea.
You probably have already guessed that
this is not strictly an outside job. Working
closely and cooperatively with our former
public servants, the lobbyists, are the insiders-Senator Bill Meier and Representative Danny Hill. According to the Observer, nine of the 11 House sponsors of
the gutting amendments received campaign contributions from the major interests behind the bill. As they put it,
Senator Bill Meier's campaign contribution list for 1978 reads like a who's who
of the lobbies pushing for the bill.
There is still some hope for salvaging
the Consumer Protection Act from its
voracious predators. Consumers and responsible businesspeople should immediately let their state legislators know where
they stand on this matter. Ignorance and
apathy are, as usual, on the side of the
special interest lobbyists, but just a little
public attention on their treacherous bill
might be enough to turn the tide.
Dr. Nikki Van Hightower is president of
the Houston Area Women's Center and a
former radio commentator.