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Guards threaten strike at Texas detention facility

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 SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Guards at the largest immigrant detention facility in Texas readied to strike Tuesday in a dispute with the same private contractor running a West Texas prison disrupted by two inmate riots in as many months.

Unionized workers at the South Texas Detention Facility in Pearsall say that unless The GEO Group Inc. agrees to better wages and working conditions Tuesday, more than 300 employees could walk off the job as early as this week.

Negotiations began in August, and union officials said the meeting with GEO in San Antonio was the last chance to hammer out a deal. About 1,400 detainees are being held at the facility because of their immigration status.

"I'm hoping (GEO) will be serious this time," said Ricardo Luna, 50, a detention officer at the facility and the union president. "But I don't know. It could go either way."

GEO spokesman Pablo Paez said the company does not comment on ongoing negotiations or employee-related matters as a matter of policy. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which contracted GEO to run the facility, has previously said the agency is "prepared to respond appropriately" no matter the outcome but did not elaborate.

A strike would be the latest problem in Texas for GEO, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based private contractor that is still sorting out two inmate riots since December at a federal prison the company manages in Reeves County.

The latest riot began Jan. 31 and ended Thursday in the remote West Texas town of Pecos. The disturbance left buildings heavily damaged, sent smoke billowing from the facility, and SWAT teams driving inside and out.

Inmates and relatives have told news media the riot was prompted by poor treatment, including medical services. Another riot in December left one housing unit damages and cost the county at least $320,000 in repairs.

In San Antonio, union workers arrived to the bargaining table prepared with 100 red picketing posters that read, "ON STRIKE AGAINST GEO GROUP INC. — UNFAIR."

Luna said the safety of detention officers has been compromised by poor equipment and new guards who he says have not received the proper training.

Located about 60 miles south of San Antonio, the Pearsall detention center is the only unionized GEO facility in the nation, union officials say. Workers are seeking increased wages, more affordable health benefits and improved working conditions.

The standard wage there is $14.37 an hour, according to union officials. Negotiations last broke off in January.

 Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.


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