United They Stand

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

Actually, she did go back north for a few months, to Patterson, New Jersey, where she helped unionize a Bagel Crisps factory. It was her first time running a campaign, and she credits helpful rank-and-file organizers from a neighboring English muffin factory for its successful outcome. After a few years Russo moved on to work for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU), one of the few unions at the time committed to organizing in the South. Like most organizers, she traveled constantly, and yet she still was able to start putting down some roots in Miami. She picked up Creole from the Haitian garment and factory workers she was organizing, and Spanish from Latin American and Caribbean workers.

When UNITE was created last year through the merger of two venerable institutions -- ACTWU and the 95-year-old International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU, originator of the "Look for the Union Label" advertising campaign) -- Russo was named director of organizing for its nine-state southern region headquartered in Atlanta. Currently she's keeping tabs on five other campaigns besides the nursing home project.

She owns a two-bedroom A-frame in North Miami, which she has decorated with Caribbean art, mostly Haitian paintings and carvings. Union colleagues frequently drop by to strategize or socialize, and there's usually a house guest. Russo seems always to be working, but her deceptively informal, lightsome manner makes it appear as if she's putting on a play at a small-town community center rather than supervising a multipronged organizing offensive.

Despite her young age, Russo is regarded in union circles as one of the top organizers in the nation. Those who have worked with her credit her close association with workers as a major factor in her success. "You have the danger of a really charismatic person becoming the union," cautions Allison Porter, assistant director of the organizing department of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of International Organizations (AFL-CIO, the powerful national umbrella organization of labor unions, with which UNITE is affiliated). "Monica makes sure she has a lot of workers around her all the time. She makes sure they're the leadership. It takes an incredibly unusual person to succeed as an organizer, and it's unusual to have really strong leadership qualities and to be empathetic at the same time."

Russo is emblematic of a new direction in the labor movement nationwide. Last month at the AFL-CIO's annual executive committee meeting held in Miami Beach, she received an award citing her "achievements in organizing which provide a model to American labor and a beacon of hope to working people." In a closed session before the executive committee, Russo and two rank-and-file members described their organizing efforts in the South, the region traditionally neglected by most unions and only recently singled out for special attention by the AFL-CIO.

Many saw last year's election of John J. Sweeney to the presidency of the AFL-CIO as confirmation of organized labor's determination to break with long-standing inertia and to change its old image as a corruption-prone old-boy network. At the executive committee meeting, federation leaders announced an unprecedented commitment to pour $20 million into organizing over the next five years with an emphasis on heretofore largely untargeted groups such as women, immigrants, and workers in the South.

Union membership has been declining over the last 30 years, from 28 percent of the U.S. work force in 1966 to less than 15 percent in 1995, according to the federal government's Bureau of Labor Statistics. The current union-dues-paying proportion of the work force drops to 10.4 percent when government employees are excluded. Under Sweeney, a white-haired, pink-faced man who made his name organizing health care workers in New York City, the AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute has a new lease on life: The six-year-old training school for organizers now has a $3.3 million annual budget, up from $350,000 in 1990. These days the emphasis is on aggressive and innovative organizing -- personal contact and recruitment, broadening the membership base -- as opposed to concentrating on protecting gains made by workers in traditional industrial occupations.

"In my opinion the whole ability of unions to organize nursing homes and other kinds of service jobs is really their future," says Ed Lawler, a professor at the University of Southern California's business school who specializes in the organization and economics of labor unions. "If they can't succeed in organizing this kind of workplace, they're basically history."

Bruce Raynor, executive vice president of New York City-based UNITE, agrees with Lawler in principle, and underscores the significance of the current effort to organize area nursing homes: "This is a big and important effort." The newly merged union, with a combined $46 million in net assets, employs about 750 people and claims 350,000 members in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico. "[Nursing home workers] need to be organized and want to be organized," Raynor adds.

As of last month there were 678 nursing homes in Florida -- 94 in Dade and Broward alone -- employing more than 180,000 certified nursing assistants, according to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which licenses CNAs. The nursing home industry in general -- and in Florida in particular -- is growing steadily, with net revenues in the state rising from about $1.5 billion in 1990 to $2.5 billion in 1994. Yet in contrast to other urban areas, South Florida's health care workers, for the most part, remain un-unionized. They have become a priority for many unions not only because they represent a relatively untapped and expanding field, but also because federal and corporate cutbacks, among other factors, have made workers more nervous about job security.

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