Two Houston attorneys vying for state and federal office in the Democratic primary have run afoul of the labor movement. The Texas AFL-CIO has accused the two candidates of being on the wrong side of a 2016 trial pitting a janitorial services company against an international union group. In a letter sent January 13 to Harris County Democratic Party Chairwoman Lillie Schechter, the Texas AFL-CIO said the candidates, who both work at the AZA law firm, were guilty of “undermining the rights and efforts of predominantly immigrant janitorial workers.”
The letter identified the attorneys as Adam Milasincic, an associate at AZA who is a candidate for Texas House District 138, and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a partner at the law firm who is running for U.S. Representative John Culberson’s seat in Congressional District 7. Both Milasincic, who is opposed in the primary by Jenifer Rene Pool, and Fletcher, who faces a crowded primary of six other Democrats, have denied the accusations.
In December, the two candidates came to The Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, the Houston arm of the Texas AFL-CIO, to seek the group’s endorsement, president Zeph Capo told the Observer. But after reviewing the case, styled Professional Janitorial Service of Houston v. Service Employees International Union, the group not only declined to endorse Milasincic and Fletcher, it also sent the scathing letter to the local Democratic Party. “We wanted to make sure we put notice out,” Capo said.
In 2007, Professional Janitorial Service (PJS) sued Service Employees International Union (SEIU) over disparaging claims the union made about the company to third parties. The case has its roots in the “Justice for Janitors” organizing campaign, a high-profile effort to unionize workers at Houston’s largest commercial cleaners more than a decade ago. After PJS balked at recognizing the union, SEIU began leveling accusations at the company. In court, PJS argued that some of the accusations — such as those pertaining to forcing employees to work off clock and firing janitors for engaging in union activities — caused the company to lose business.
With AZA’s help, the company won $5.3 million in a 10-2 jury decision at trial, the Houston Chronicle reported.
AFL-CIO says it takes issue with how Milasincic and his unnamed co-counsel conducted themselves during the trial. The labor group wrote that the attorneys “hounded union witnesses with ridiculous and objectionable questions,” and referred to witnesses as “union thugs” and “mob bosses.” The lawyers turned the courtroom into “an anti-union and anti-immigrant circus, inflaming the prejudice of the jury against the janitors and their union,” the letter reads. The group also asserts that AZA “hired investigators who intimidated a number of immigrant worker potential witnesses,” some of whom opted not to testify or changed their testimony after being visited by investigators.
“We believe that progressive voters and organizations should be aware of the work of this firm and these lawyers in undermining the rights and efforts of predominantly immigrant janitorial workers in the city of Houston to unionize,” the group wrote.
In a subsequent letter to the Harris County Democratic Party, Fletcher distances herself from the court case, writing, “I was not a client; I was not involved in the representation of the client; and I did not set the strategy or participate in the case in any way.” She said the attack on her and Milasincic “reflects a misunderstanding of the role of lawyers,” because lawyers don’t necessarily agree “with every client on every issue.” Put another way, the law firm did what it was hired to do. Milasincic told the Observer that many of the statements included in the AFL-CIO letter were either false or taken out of context. He said he never referred to witnesses as “thugs” or “mob bosses.”
“The impression that the letter tries to create is entirely misleading. To suggest in any way that I’m anti-immigrant is not only entirely false but offensive,” Milasincic said, adding that his reason for seeking office is to rectify the damage done by Senate Bill 4, known as the “show me your papers” bill. Milasincic said he’ll continue to support the AFL-CIO’s platform despite the dust-up.
In a prepared statement, the Harris County Democratic Party said it doesn’t make endorsements in contested primaries, but it also acknowledged that “labor is an incredibly close allied organization to the Democratic Party and a central part of our coalition. We value the central role they play in trying to make an economy work for everyone and all of the time and effort they put in day-in and day-out to ensure labor rights are protected.”
Capo, the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation president, said his organization has between 60,000 and 70,0000 members, including teachers, municipal workers, bricklayers and others.
The Texas AFL-CIO has endorsed Jenifer Rene Pool in the House District 138 race. The group has not made an endorsement in the 7th Congressional District, other than to say: “Anybody but Lizzie (Fletcher),” Capo said.