United They Stand

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

"With the changes taking place in health care, everything seems to be going to bigger and bigger conglomerates, and that creates uncertainty," points out labor attorney Dan Kunkel of Kunkel, Miller & Hament, a Tampa law firm that has counseled the owners of three different Miami nursing homes on how to counter UNITE's efforts. After a lull in union activity in the health care industry, Kunkel and other observers say, unions are attempting a comeback. (Union-busting has become a specialty of many law firms, who are called in by savvy employers at the first sign of union activity. Though UNITE took pains to keep its campaign under wraps until January, it didn't take long for word to leak out. Monica Russo has a copy of an undated memo faxed late last year to South Florida nursing homes by Kunkel, Miller & Hament: "This newly formed union has begun to target Florida nursing homes. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough the importance of ensuring that you are prepared for a possible union organizing attempt at your facility.")

According to UNITE's Raynor, who oversees the union's operations in nine southeastern states, the situation for workers in area nursing homes is critical. "Workers in South Florida are mostly immigrants, some African Americans, who are being exploited by an industry that's growing," he explains. "Not only growing, but budget cuts are putting more and more pressure on companies who are not going to sacrifice profits and so will sacrifice their workers' rights and welfare instead. More so than in the past, employers feel they can get away with violating workers' rights and pay low wages, somehow in the name of competition."

UNITE's broad campaign isn't particularly unusual, but it does represent something of a departure for this regional office, whose major successes to date have been at textile, manufacturing, and laundry operations. Russo says the nursing home campaign developed over the past few years, after her staff received complaints from workers and their relatives, many of whom were referred by friends or family already employed at a UNITE shop. One CNA had been injured on the job, and her employers were denying worker's compensation. Another, a supervisor for fifteen years who was the only black maintenance staffer where he worked, came to UNITE, having been fired after training the man who eventually took his job. A CNA with a history of commendations was fired after an argument with a relative of a patient; the CNA claimed that she had never been allowed to speak in her own defense and had been forced to sign a paper that later was altered to state that she could not work in any other nursing home. When UNITE organizers followed up on these and other complaints, they met long-time employees who were earning less than subsistence wages. They also heard of homes that failed to pay overtime, of racial discrimination and favoritism, and of staff cutbacks resulting in increasingly heavy workloads. It was no coincidence, they concluded, that local nursing home workers were mostly women of color -- immigrants from Caribbean and Latin American countries as well as African Americans.

It's this heterogeneous, largely immigrant, and marginalized work force that makes South Florida as formidable as any challenge confronted by organized labor -- a challenge to union people such as Russo to think creatively, to try different ways to coax ethnic groups who don't necessarily speak the same language to act as a unified force. "My experience until about four years ago has been organizing in the South, in more rural, small-town settings," admits Russo, who nonetheless is fluent in Creole, Spanish, and Portuguese. "And organizing immigrant workers in the city is a totally different ball game. I love it. To me this isn't about helping the helpless but about empowering workers. And it's very, very exciting, especially with immigrants who've been so dogged out, so trounced. The other side'd better watch out, because immigrant workers are gonna get power and things are gonna change."

Despite the widespread reluctance -- fear is the word UNITE's organizers use -- of Villa Maria employees to attempt to unionize, UNITE teams assigned to the Hebrew Home for the Aged and Palm Garden Nursing Home, both in North Miami Beach, have been welcomed with enthusiasm. Their reception has been particularly encouraging at the Hebrew Home, where the firing in November of the CNA who had exchanged harsh words with a patient's family member galvanized her colleagues. There, UNITE workers are signing up almost everyone they show a card to.

At the same time, UNITE is bringing its campaign to the general public, notably the area's Haitian and African-American communities. Russo and other union members appear on several Haitian radio shows, including Haitian-American Democratic Club president Jacques Despinosse's Saturday talk show on WKAT-AM (1360), where they discuss UNITE's position on various workers' and union issues. Russo and rank-and-file leader JoAinne Jocelyn are invited to address the congregation of a Haitian Baptist church. And some 50 union members and supporters march in the Martin Luther King Day parade. Then on March 4, at a UNITE press conference called to officially introduce the nursing home campaign, an emotional U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek puts the first signature on a "Nursing Home Workers' Bill of Rights" petition. "I may be a congresswoman, but I came from the trenches," Meek declares, her voice breaking as she mentions her mother's back-breaking labor as a domestic, earning poverty wages. "I will do all I can to help people know what's going on here." CNAs from the three nursing homes with the most active current campaigns -- Hebrew Home, Palm Garden, and Villa Maria -- are present, and some of them speak. UNITE has already petitioned the NLRB for elections at Hebrew Home and Palm Garden and is waiting for the board to set dates.

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