United They Stand

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

She wakes up at 5:00 a.m. to arrive at Villa Maria by 7:00, where she works until 3:00 helping residents -- some of whom are senile or mentally disturbed -- do the things they can't do for themselves: dress, walk, negotiate a bathtub or toilet, eat, sit, get into or out of bed. She isn't allowed to administer medicine, but owing to staff cutbacks she sometimes must perform duties that are normally the responsibilities of licensed practical nurses. At any given time she may be responsible for as few as eight or as many as twenty patients, depending on how many workers are on duty or, sometimes, on the whims of her supervisors. When her shift at Villa Maria ends, Yolaine hurries to her second job as a CNA at Plaza Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, another nursing home in North Miami. She's supposed to be there by 3:00 p.m., but her bosses at Plaza give her a break because of her schedule and allow her to arrive by 3:30. After getting off work at 11:00 p.m., she makes it to bed by about 1:00 a.m.

Before he leaves, Perera firmly places a half-dozen yellow union cards (written in Creole) in Yolaine's hands. He wants her to pass them out at Villa Maria and return them to him, signed. She shakes her head. "You know I can't give it," she tells him. "You don't trust nobody. I don't want to do that." She confers in Creole with Laurat, who then explains to Perera that the Haitian CNAs are worried they'll be reported to management and are afraid even to discuss the union among themselves.

"What if we had a meeting they could all come to?" Perera asks.
"I don't know," Yolaine says doubtfully.
Perera protests gently, with no hint of annoyance: "Unless you use your rights, you're not going to get any more rights. The only way you're gonna get a union there is if all the people sign each other up. Somebody has to stand up, and that's you." Yolaine shakes her head. The men leave some cards with her anyway. She may change her mind in the coming days.

"She can sign everyone up in that place if she wants to," Perera remarks to Laurat as they climb into his UNITE company car, a light green Pontiac. "You can't be easy, not now. If you're easy, you won't get a union. It's difficult and not comfortable to push people like that, but if you don't, it's not going to happen."

After a fruitless few stops (no one's home), Laurat offers to make lunch at his North Miami apartment -- a room in the back of a house, actually -- since they're already in the neighborhood. "Not much food here," he announces, slipping off his black Calvin Klein baseball cap and ducking behind a white curtain into his kitchen. He returns with a large glass jar of confiture a friend brought him from Haiti. He ladles the thick, sweet brown jam A the product of grapefruits and sugar that have been cooked for hours A into Styrofoam cups, then pushes a cassette into an ancient tape player. The infectious, buoyant music of the Haitian superstar Sweet Mickey immediately brightens the dim room. On a tabletop is an envelope addressed in flowery handwriting to "Mon Amour Lionel Laurat." It's from his fiancee in Port-au-Prince, whom he left behind in 1994. Laurat fled the country, he says with little expression, a few days after armed men burst into his family's home and shot to death his brother and his mother. He hid under a bed. He assumes the attack was in retaliation for his family's support of Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return to power.

Once in Miami the 35-year-old Laurat landed a job operating a sewing machine at Bag Specialists in Opa-Locka, one of seven local plants whose work force is represented by UNITE. A few months ago he was promoted to mechanic after receiving additional training. He plans to study English and possibly resume his pursuit of a law degree, which he began in Haiti. Soon, he hopes, his fiancee can join him here.

Monica Russo's small corner office is located on the second floor of a nondescript gray building in working-class Allapattah. The room is adorned with scores of snapshots of union members and union rallies and victory celebrations. Hanging on the wall are two maps of Haiti A gifts from workers A whimsical assemblages of colored gravel and shells glued onto paper to represent palm trees, boats, and Haiti's different provinces. There's a poster of the late labor organizer Cesar Chavez, and one of Emiliano Zapata, emblazoned with the Mexican revolutionary's famous quote: "I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees."

Russo was born in Oxford, Pennsylvania, to activist parents, both of whom taught at nearby Lincoln University, the nation's oldest black university. According to Russo, her father, a history professor, was fired for starting a union at the school. After graduating from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1986 with a B.A. in history, she searched for a union-related job while working as a secretary. "The Bakery, Confectionary and Tobacco Workers Union [BCTWU] called and said they were conducting some campaigns in the South and was I interested," recalls Russo. "I packed up my stuff and drove to Georgia and never went back."

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