United They Stand

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

"When we're out there, we have no time to waste," Russo concludes. "Remember, our vision is to change the way nursing homes operate in South Florida."

When UNITE organizer Gihan Perera and Lionel Laurat, a union member on leave from his factory job as a sewing machine mechanic, drive to northwest Dade late on a Saturday morning, they know the 63-year-old Haitian CNA they are looking for wants to introduce a union into the Villa Maria Nursing Center where she works. And they know from talking to other CNAs that she is respected not just for her age and her fifteen years at the North Miami nursing home, but also for her great influence among her Haitian co-workers. Perera and Laurat's mission is to persuade her to bring others into the union.

By now the UNITE organizers have some idea of the floor plans and working conditions in a dozen area nursing homes, as well as who the best-known employees are and what shifts they work, and how sympathetic or unsympathetic their supervisors may be to the possibility of a union. This information, garnered from conversations with workers and through other channels the union doesn't want to make public, is the starting point for the blitz. (While organizers obviously want to avoid tipping their hand to nursing home operators, they also fear the clout business interests have with the state legislature, which periodically entertains proposals to limit access to public records.)

As the campaign progresses, computer-generated lists will be compiled and posted at UNITE's Allapattah headquarters. The lists, which contain the names and addresses of workers, show who has been visited at home. They also contain a numerical ranking characterizing a worker's estimated level of support for the union, and, most important, a notation indicating whether she (or occasionally he -- there are some male nurses' aides) has signed a yellow card declaring her intention to join UNITE. Depending on the reception UNITE gets at the homes initially targeted, Russo may decide to concentrate more on one or pay less attention to another. "We just cast a wide net to see what jumped," she notes about the initial few weeks. "We really didn't know what to expect."

Once 30 percent of the employees at any nursing home have signed the cards, the union can petition the NLRB -- the federal agency created in 1935 to protect workers' rights to organize unions -- to hold a vote. If the union wins a majority of that vote, it becomes the official bargaining agent for all employees. (In Florida, a right-to-work state, no employee is required to join a union, but any contract negotiated by the union applies to members and nonmembers alike.)

Perera and Laurat find Yolaine (not her real name) standing in the driveway of her brown brick house. She wears an ankle-length ruffled white nightgown covered with a long pajama top, white socks, and brown sandals. Perera, tall and thin with short, neatly barbered black hair, strides up and hugs the woman. "Hey, how you doin'?" he asks. Yolaine smiles wearily, and the trio files into her living room.

"What's going to happen if we sign the cards and after that the management doesn't want the union coming in, then they fire people?" Yolaine wants to know. It's illegal to do that, replies Perera. By law the workers have the right to organize. In any case, he adds, the union never shows the cards to other workers or to anyone connected with the employer. Yolaine listens dispassionately, appearing almost convinced.

Even before the blitz started, Villa Maria's management held what it called an informational meeting -- what the union called a brainwash meeting. Workers said they were told they'd lose their homes, cars, and jobs if they joined a union. The 272-bed Villa Maria, which the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami bought two years ago from an order of nuns, is one of three nursing homes the archdiocese owns in Dade County. Archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta denies that Villa Maria administrators would threaten employees. Tensions escalated at the nursing home when union teams showed up to hand out leaflets and talk to workers between shifts, and North Miami police were called in to disperse them. One morning a security guard threatened to turn a hose on the union advocates. (At St. John's, another home owned by the archdiocese, police were also called in, and that nursing home's administrator came out to shoo away the union people.) Still, Yolaine insists she's so tired of the long hours and poor pay that she isn't fazed by the Villa Maria administration's tactics.

"I've been there fifteen years," she says. "And how much you think I get?"
"Ten, eleven dollars an hour," Perera suggests, knowing full well the real answer will be far less.

"Six-ninety. Last week they gave me a thirteen-cents raise. They give us insurance, but we pay $35 every fifteen days. It would be $378 per month for my family; that's why I don't put my kids in. But I got insurance because I'm old." Yolaine looks sideways at the 25-year-old Perera, who's sitting beside her on a cushiony brown sofa. A teenage boy and girl drift in and out of the adjacent kitchen, nodding politely at the visitors. Yolaine smiles and smoothes her uncombed hair. This is her only weekend off all month.

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