United They Stand

Labor organizer Monica Russo helps Dade's nursing home workers form a more perfect union

We've been training for this moment not just the past few hours or days, but for the past few years," Monica Russo declares emphatically, her voice tinged with a southern drawl. "And now the moment has arrived." She paces, lips pursed, pausing for a Haitian man to translate her words into Creole, and then for a Peruvian woman to put everything into Spanish. The 31-year-old Russo -- stylishly dressed, bespectacled, no makeup, simply done shoulder-length brown hair A doesn't remotely resemble the popular image of a labor union boss. Yet that's what she is: the southern regional director of organizing for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).

At this moment, on a chilly morning in early January, Russo is standing in front of about 50 people in a conference room at the Howard Johnson Hotel on NW 163rd Street in North Miami. She's kicking off a massive campaign to unionize nursing home employees throughout South Florida, where the booming health-care industry employs increasing numbers of immigrants in low-paying, nonunion jobs. Nearly half of those jobs belong to certified nursing assistants (CNAs), also called nurses' aides, who earn an average of $6.03 per hour while performing one of the most dangerous jobs for women in the U.S., at least according to a study done last year by the Washington, D.C.-based Service Employees International Union.

Russo has spent her ten-year adult professional career as a labor organizer in the Southeast. And even though she herself has never worked in a nursing home, for this campaign she has corralled dozens of organizers and union members with experience as factory and/or nursing home workers.

The translations completed, Russo resumes. "What are we gonna talk about?" she asks. "Conditions for nursing home workers in South Florida have never been worse. It's so bad that women who've been working as CNAs up to twenty years are still making $5.25 an hour. How can you afford to pay $300 a month for medical insurance when you're making $5.25 an hour!" Russo shouts. Her audience responds with the nodding of heads, the clapping of hands, and calls of affirmation. "Not only are the workers makin' no money," she continues, "but they're suffering from back injuries, injuries to their legs, arms, shoulders -- injuries they suffer for life."

Cassandra Davis, standing at the back of the room, knows all this and every other pitfall of the profession. Davis, a tall woman with a determined gaze, worked as a CNA for fourteen years in her home state of Indiana. The Teamsters had organized health-care workers there, and Davis was an early and active union member. Although she loved her work, she loved union business even more, and now her job as a UNITE organizer in the South keeps her on the road three weeks out of each month, away from her home and husband back in Gary. Along with about ten other itinerant organizers, she has come to Miami to work alongside local UNITE staffers and a contingent of rank-and-file members.

"We think it's bad now -- we ain't seen nothin' yet!" Russo tells the crowd. "With the cuts coming down from Washington, the entire bottom is gonna fall out. There's not gonna be nothing for workers. So there's never been a better time in history for nursing home workers to organize than right now. Today. Not just one nursing home. Unless we organize hundreds and hundreds of workers all over South Florida, we won't have the power to defend ourselves against the cuts coming down now. The workers are ready, and all they're waiting on is us to back 'em up. Our job now is to go and talk to people wherever we find 'em -- at home, at their second job, on the radio, on the job. We need to let 'em know what their rights are. And we need to make sure they know this ain't no freebie. This is gonna be a fight. We need to prepare our people for the bosses' campaign of intimidation that we all know because we've been through it many times. How many of you been threatened for getting a union?"

Among those waving their hands in the air is Jean-Claude Demosthene, the personable young Creole translator. He immigrated to Miami seven years ago from Port-de-Paix, Haiti, and is a single father of a two-year-old girl. Until last fall, Demosthene worked in a warehouse at Parts Depot, Inc. and was among several active UNITE members. He was also one of about a dozen union members who were told they were being laid off from the company for economic reasons; however, they're certain they were let go in retaliation for their union activity, and UNITE lawyers have asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to order their reinstatement. Demosthene has become a valued rank-and-file organizer for UNITE and is considered an instrumental liaison with the city's Haitian community in this campaign. "Talking to my people," he says often, placing a hand over his heart and tilting his angular, vaguely feline face.

Winding up her pep talk, Russo prepares to hand out manila folders bearing lists of names, addresses, positions, shifts, and whatever other information organizers have been able to glean about workers at several area nursing homes. Two- and three-person teams will fan out from Homestead to Fort Lauderdale to announce the start of what is generally called "the blitz." For the next two weeks, union campaigners will work around the clock to make their presence and intent inescapably clear, both to employees and to management.

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