Left Field

Power Grabs, Thanks-Giving Square, The Bush Beat, Minimum Wage in Dallas, Race Records Redux

Former Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock defined the Texas power handshake, firmly holding on to a conversant’s hand until Bullock himself decided the conversation was over. No one remembers whether Bullock developed that particular handjob when he represented Hillsboro in the State House – but there is no doubt that the lower chamber is one of the most tactile bodies politic in the nation. The first rule of engagement is that any time any legislator passes within three feet of another, contact must happen. Another rule is that any time a female legislator comes within thirty feet of Seguin Republican Ed Kuempel, kissing has to happen. Gender, race, ethnicity, height, age, sexual preference – in the Texas House touching transcends all. “If these people were in any other workplace,” notes one House aide, “sexual harassment suits would be flying right and left.” Yet there seems to be legislative immunity. More intriguing, contact is not random; it’s ritualized. Every gesture conveys something.

Engagement: Want to talk to a colleague about “a little bill” you have in Steve Wolens State Affairs Committee? Approach from right and place hand in the upper center of colleague’s back, never touching the neck (no skin-to-skin contact allowed). Press gently, and hang tight as conversation commences, then remove hand: if male-to-male, lifting straight off the back; if male-to-female, sliding hand down the shoulder to end of sleeve fabric.

Disengagement: Don’t depart until you hook up again, but quick hand placement on the upper back, signaling the end of discussion, will suffice.

Two-Hand Power Talk: Approach subject from the front; place both hands on shoulders. Lock in with eye contact; you talk, colleague listens. Works best if the power-talker is taller – never used by short guys like Warren Chisum. Conveys dominance. Frontal right hand to left shoulder only is less intimidating to listener.

One Finger Passing: A walk-by gesture that says, “Hey, I’m with you” – by extending one finger (à la God, the Creator of the Sistine Chapel) and touching in an appropriate place, usually the forearm. Do not break stride at any time.

Close Talking: Implies confidence, importance of topic, and partisan intimacy. Front-to-front, no hands. Rarely practiced by older men with paunch problems (or the two really fat guys). Usually limited to same-gender conversations between males of the same party.

The Kuempel Kiss: Only male-to-female, and actually only Ed Kuempel-to-female: begins with a grand, swooping, head-and-shoulder windup to bring the the kisser’s lips squarely into the face of the shorter woman. (Ed’s a Big Guy.) From a distance, appears wet. Women who would avoid it employ the Sherri Greenberg Walk: quick, purposeful, and in the other direction.

Fortress of Gratitude

In the heart of downtown Dallas lies a small, recessed park, whose trees and fountains offer lunchtime relief to refugees from the surrounding skyscrapers. It’s a pleasant change of scenery, for which visitors no doubt feel grateful – and that’s just the thing to feel when at Thanks-Giving [sic] Square, a private garden of gratitude cultivated by Dallas’ Center for World Thanksgiving.

At one corner of the triangular park is a path that slopes upward toward a terrace, and along the path are four signs. First, “Warning: Private Property.” Second: “The path of life is sometimes uphill.” Third: “What can help us? Make us look up?” And fourth: “Just ONE grateful thought – that changes everything.” The terrace itself celebrates the concept of giving thanks to God, inviting the walker to spiral past a Norman Rockwell mosaic showing people of different races and nations, past the tripartite archway that holds the three Bells of Thanksgiving, and through a large ring. (“Spiral into the tradition of the Ring of Thanks and its hidden meaning,” a sign instructs.)

At the opposite end of the park lies a spiraling white marble tower, designed by Philip Johnson: “The Chapel of Thanksgiving.” Its otherwise plain interior is decorated with spiraling stained-glass windows, but also with neutral-tone carpet; the walls are acoustically padded, and empty chairs are arranged in a semi-circle before a large stone block that could be a podium – so you can’t quite escape the suspicion that you’re in a temple for executive boardmembers. An underground exhibit room at Thanks-Giving Square, complete with photos of Gerald Ford and Nancy Reagan, as well as plaques honoring big donors like Exxon and Halliburton, compounds the feeling that if corporate America imagined its own generic religion, the Square would be its mother church.

This, in fact, is not too far from what happened. “When Dallas was getting ready to expand back in the sixties,” explains Elizabeth Espersen, Executive Director of the Thanks-Giving Foundation at Thanks-Giving Square, “some of the business persons in the city actually, and some civic leaders, raised the question of whether or not you could have a spiritual center in the heart of a modern city as you did in ancient times.” They secured a group of theological consultants to ponder this question, Espersen says, and after a number of luncheon meetings they concluded that it was indeed possible, “but you needed to have a theme, and then it was educators who suggested the theme of thanksgiving because it was something that was universal, but it also had very strong roots in America.” Thanks-Giving Square incorporated in 1964, bought land in 1968, built the park in the early seventies, and opened in 1976. In addition to maintaining the park and visitors’ center, it holds seminars around the world on gratitude-related subjects. Last March, it hosted a three-day Thanksgiving World Assembly in Dallas (cost: $300,000), which brought together an international group of religious leaders to collectively contemplate the meaning of thanksgiving.

Much was accomplished at the assembly, says Espersen. “I think what they discovered is that first of all, the atmosphere of gratitude … provided a harmonious milieu in which to work,” Espersen recalls. “Secondly, I think in looking at the concept they had to look at it personally, then in communal terms, and then started to talk about actions that could be taken…. One of the strongest actions that has come out of this is that people are seeing that if you’re grateful, you want to reach out in service to others, then you look to how can I make it better, not only for my own group but for my neighbor, and you’ve got all the examples of what’s going on in Kosovo and people reaching out, those same sorts of things came out of this meeting.”

Apparently, not all participants were as sanguine: “I’m feeling somewhat empty,” a Salvation Army representative told the Dallas Morning News after the conference. “I have some concern that it has been words and words alone.” Not true, says Espersen, who notes that Thanks-Giving Square will present a report on the conference to UNESCO, and that a Christian Scientist named Myrtle Smyth is starting a second Thanks-Giving Square park in Belfast, Ireland.

The Bush Beat

LOBBYISTS ARRESTED!” That’s a headline that might raise eyebrows in Austin – if it meant that a few members of the corporate horde besieging the Capitol had finally landed in the clink.

But not this time. Rick Abraham, director of the environmental group Texans United, came to Austin March 29 on the people’s business, with a group of activists from around the state. They were at the Capitol as a “people’s lobby” on environmental issues, specifically supporting legislation to require “grandfathered” industrial facilities to finally comply with the 1971 Texas Clean Air Act, and to oppose Governor Bush’s voluntary emissions reduction program.

Having visited their legislators, the group of about fifty people walked to the front of the Governor’s Mansion for a public rally, in a Colorado Street ritual familiar to generations of Austinites. But this time, when the group attempted to form an open picket line along the sidewalk, Capitol police told them to move across the street to a “designated protest area” – a nearby state parking lot. When Abraham, carrying a sign reading “Air Pollution Kills,” refused to leave the sidewalk, he was arrested on a charge of “obstructing a passageway.” Says Abraham, “They kept me from walking on the sidewalk, they held me in front of the entrance [the gated and closed entrance to the Mansion], then got me for ‘blocking an entrance’ – an entrance that was closed. There was no sidewalk traffic at all.”

Abraham’s arrest was apparently the second use of what the Governor’s Protective Detail (a security detachment of the Department of Public Safety) is calling a new policy for Mansion protests. On March 10, a group delivering petitions against TXI’s toxic waste incinerators didn’t move quickly enough to satisfy the G.P.D. honchos. According to Jim Schermbeck of Downwinders at Risk, even though the on-duty D.P.S. officers had been working amiably with the protestors, suddenly a new group of officers arrested and handcuffed Dee Tinker when she was too slow to move. Only after the group pled that Tinker needed to care for her child – and after other activists began taking down names and badge numbers – did the officers release her with a warning. “There were people walking along the sidewalk the entire time we were at the demo,” said Schermbeck. “I’ve been arrested for blocking a passageway, and arrested for blocking a sidewalk, and this ain’t it.”

The policy that got Tinker and Abraham arrested is so new that when Left Field inquired about it in early April (a month after the first incident, and a week after Abraham’s arrest), neither the official D.P.S. spokesman nor the Governor’s office had heard of it. “The ‘designated protest area?’ asked a skeptical Tom Vinger of the D.P.S. “Is that right down there, three blocks to the left, right behind that tree over there?” A day later, the newly-informed spokesmen recited the official line: Lieutenant Mike Escalante, head of the Governor’s Protective Detail, had recently installed the policy “for the protection of protestors and pedestrians” during the busy legislative session.

Asked why many years of previous sessions had required no such restrictions, the spokesmen had no response. Nor did they care to speculate why the corporate lobbyists in the Capitol building – who daily and literally obstruct ready access to the House and Senate while forcibly buttonholing senators and reps – might not be subject to the same restrictive policy.

“I think they’re trying to out-macho the Secret Service,” speculated Jim Schermbeck, noting the buzz over the Governor’s declared undeclared presidential bid. Rick Abraham, after spending twelve unhappy hours in an Austin jail (“the worst I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in Mississippi jails for civil rights protests”) says he will sue the D.P.S. for illegal arrest and imprisonment. On April 19, he returned to the Mansion with a group of union and environmental protestors to test the new policy. The D.P.S. ignored the walkers – until they raised their signs. Abraham was again arrested, along with three other activists. They vowed to keep fighting.

Dallas Gripped by Labor, News Shortage

A labor shortage in Dallas is driving up wages in the fast-food industry, according to a story filed in late March by Dallas Morning News business columnist Jane Seaberry. “There’s an unexpected place to earn a nice, fat wad of cash,” Seaberry confides: McDonald’s! She wouldn’t have believed it herself, but Seaberry called around and found that McDonald’s, that bastion of low-wage employment, is paying an average wage of about $7 per hour at its Dallas area restaurants, almost two dollars above the minimum wage. She even found one McDonald’s in the comfy suburb of Plano – where most teens wouldn’t cross the street to pick up ten bucks – that pays up to $10 per hour. “What happened to the minimum wage?” she asks.

And what happened to getting off your butt and finding some news? By our count (assisted by a Lexis news search) this makes the third time Seaberry has exposed this particular “fact” in the pages of the Morning News since 1994. In November of 1994, Seaberry did some lunch-hour research and discovered that “in the dog-eat-dog, man-eats-burger business, finding a good hourly worker – or stealing a competitor’s – is getting difficult because of a burgeoning labor shortage in Dallas.”

Her editors liked the angle so much, she did the story again, in July of 1996, when she reported that “the hamburger flipper, often relegated to the lowest rung on the worker pay scale, has been quietly moving up the food chain.” The culprit in each case was “Dallas’ strong job machine.” Which brings us to 1999, the year Seaberry discovered that “in most major cities … the minimum wage has gone the way of the $1 fast food meal.”

The real shortage in Dallas, apparently, is business news. Or, conversely, it could be a glut of business reporters, who in this age of Dow-ogling have little to do but glance over at the Bloomberg machine and recycle last year’s stories.

Left Field reached Seaberry at her desk at the Morning News. She would neither confirm nor deny the presence of a news shortage in Dallas, and was reluctant to discuss her own newsgathering methods. “I’m not sure what you’re going to be using this information for,” she said, referring questions to the editor on duty, who did not return calls. A clue to Seaberry’s sense of timing may be the goings-on in Congress, where, as Seaberry observes in both 1996 and 1999 (in strikingly parallel paragraphs), an increase in the minimum wage was being debated at the time her stories ran.

As the Texas Restaurant Association likes to point out at least once a year, an increase in the minimum wage would be unnecessary if nobody were earning it. But of course, outside of certain pockets of major cities, virtually all fast food workers start out at – or pennies above – the minimum wage. You don’t need to read Jane Seaberry’s column to find that out.

Race Records Redux

Tejano music may have hit it big over the last decade, but the Selena daze never translated into salad days for recording musicians, many of whom continue to be paid a pittance for studio sessions. Most mainstream musicians receive professional scale wages and benefits, set by an industry-wide union contract that the American Federation of Musicians negotiated with the five major record companies and hundreds of smaller companies. Yet Tejano musicians, working for the same companies, get the shaft. That’s because the majors, like Sony and BMG, have established separate, “independent” labels, like Sony Discos and BMG Latin, which do not honor the labor agreement.

When Tejano’s popularity took off in the late eighties and early nineties, says Mike Muñiz of A.F.M.’s Local 23 in San Antonio, artists started to notice something was amiss. “They were doing a lot of jingle work, commercials for beer companies, various products,” he says, “and [some of them] would record in Nashville – there was a lot of crossover work going on.” Television and Nashville abided by labor contracts, while the Hispanic/Latin companies were still paying twenty dollars or fifty dollars a song, without benefits, no matter how long a recording session lasted. “So they were asking questions: whoa, I’m getting pension [benefits] over there, and what about my record contracts?” says Muñiz, formerly a bassist for the (non-Tejano) band Eddie and the All Nighters. “Why aren’t we getting it on Sony [Discos], if when we go to Nashville and record for Sony over there we are?”

In November of 1997, Muñiz and A.F.M. kicked off the STAR (Support Teja
o Advancement in Recording) campaign. “It’s a national campaign,” he says, “because the problem we have here in Texas with these labels is the same in Miami, with banda and salsa, and with norteño in Los Angeles. But it started here in Texas, because Texas is the most organized.” (Believe it or not.) The campaign has enlisted hundreds of musicians and supporters, though “it’s somewhat difficult for a lot of local musicians who have signed onto our campaign to put their name forward… for the fear that they won’t be hired,” Muñiz says. After the campaign was launched, he says, some supporters were no longer called for work.

More established musicians, like Little Joe Hernandez and Ruben Ramos, have been quite public about their endorsement of STAR, and its long and eclectic list of big-shot supporters includes the likes of definitely-not-Tejano singer Lucinda Williams, U.S. Representative Ciro Rodríguez, and former “CHIPs” star Erik Estrada. Last January in San Antonio, a group of musicians and supporters attended a forum on conditions in the Tejano recording industry, and on May 7 STAR will release a report on the issues raised by the meeting. The campaign “has been going very well. We’re getting more and more support,” says Muñiz. As of yet there’s been no response from the industry.

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Published at 12:00 am CST