Carlos Guerra: Low-wage city workers still have issues to resolve
San Antonio Express-News
Web Posted : 05/16/2002 12:00 AM

Nine months have passed since leaders of the Service Employees International Union Local 100 revealed that contrary to promises that all city workers would earn an $8.25 hourly living wage, 2,540 of them were being paid $6.25 an hour.

And many more city workers, they said, were being denied benefits, days off, holidays, vacations and basic job security because of "temporary" and "part-time" classifications, though some had worked 40-hour weeks for years.

COPS and Metro Alliance were stunned by the revelations. The two groups had lobbied city and county officials for years to pay their workers living wages and to make living wages a condition of all tax subsidies. But they had taken officials at their word. And not long after SEIU's bombshell about the city, COPS and Metro Alliance learned that, earlier promises notwithstanding, many county workers were also earning less than the $8.25 an hour they were promised.

Though the union had obtained the city's data through an open-records request, City Manager Terry Brechtel disputed its count. The actual number of $6.25 an hour workers was closer to 1,000, she said. Brechtel also asserted that when former Mayor Howard Peak and former City Manager Alex Briseño had promised all city workers a living wage, they didn't literally mean "all" workers.

But Briseño emerged from retirement to say that when he said "all," he meant exactly that, which jibed with statements made by union organizer Wade Rathke.

"In the budget for fiscal year 2000-01," Rathke said, "there are 26 references to 'all city employees' receiving a living wage, including in the introductory letter to the mayor and council from the city manager. Twenty-two of these references are found in the specific departmental appropriations, which detail how specific allocations are being made to bring all city workers up to the proposed standard."

And Rathke also focused attention of the city's use of temporary, part-time, seasonal and other classifications to justify denying workers job security, time off and benefits. The city's own civil service rules limit the duration of both temporary and part-time employment, he pointed out, but these rules were routinely violated.

SEIU, he added, would work to recover back wages and benefits "to make them whole."

In one respect, the union's timing could not have been better.

A new city budget was being considered and plans had been made to increase the living wage 25 cents to $8.50 an hour.

The brouhaha gave elected officials the opportunity for a second round of oratorical overkill and to promise, yet again, that all city workers would earn a living wage.

What has happened since?

Guillermo Vazquez of the SEIU's San Antonio office says: "From what we've found, everyone is now getting paid the living wage."

But while the city has turned some of the longtime temps and part-timers into full-time workers with full benefits, Vazquez says, many more have been dismissed, and in several departments temporary and part-time workers are being regularly recycled.

As for the back pay the union says is owed longtime temps, the city is taking the position that it owes them nothing more than to remedy its earlier policy violations.

But don't think for a minute that the union is going to simply forget about it. Stay tuned.

To leave a message for Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail His column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.


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