United They Stand

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

According to Russo, the press conference is an important symbolic gesture toward the workers, a show of support for their first steps in a new and untested direction. It's important for the union's public image, too, as UNITE works to establish itself not only as a viable union but as a nursing home workers' union. "It's all about imagery," Russo insists. In addition to the unfamiliarity of UNITE's name among workers, its previous successes in South Florida have been in fields other than health care. Competing unions and nursing home administrators have been quick to jump on this point. "We have so little access to the workers, and the employers have eight hours a day," Russo laments. "We have to show we're a union actively fighting for the workers. We have to define UNITE as the union for nursing home workers."

That will be expensive. Salaries for more than a dozen organizers (not all working at the same time) and union staffers (Russo earns about $41,000 per year). Compensation for rank-and-file volunteers' lost wages. Travel. Meals. Rental cars. Conference rooms and motel rooms. Printing expenses for the reams of leaflets, cards, and posters. UNITE executive vice president Bruce Raynor says it's impossible to tell how much money the union will spend on the entire campaign because it has no annual budget per se, with funds allotted as needed. It spends what it has to when it has to. And the union can afford to foot the bills. "The merged union has ample resources to go up against any corporation in society," asserts Raynor. "No company is too big for us. These unions have been around for a long time, they're frugal organizations, they don't pay people a lot of money, don't waste money, they made some smart investments, and have a lot of assets."

All that, he suggests, runs counter to the widely held assumption that the U.S. labor movement is dying. "I think there's a revival," he contends. Others concur. "When everyone said unions are dead or declining rapidly, it was all totally true, but something has happened," explains Stanley Aronowitz, professor of sociology at the City University of New York and author of several books on labor unions. "It finally got to the point where unions and union members were beaten down so hard they finally said, 'We've got nothing more to lose, let's try to turn it around.' When you have no protection, a voice telling you your job is down the drain, your sense of despair and powerlessness is acute. If you have the option to join a union during a period of change, you're going to do it. The workers will fight eventually, because at a certain point they say, 'This is undignified' A not just in an economic sense, but in the sense of who they are."

Francena Sheffield doesn't express it exactly that way, but she will tell you that her low wages aren't the only reason she's working so hard to bring the union into Villa Maria Nursing Center. A large woman with downturned eyes and black curls that sweep up to the top of her head, Sheffield has been a CNA at Villa Maria for 31 years. She refuses to talk about her wage, saying it makes her too angry. "Years back I could work for less money and be happy," she allows. "But now you're harassed. It don't seem like you do enough. [The former management] would always call us together and talk to us to get our opinion before they did something, but now these people send out a memo. You don't see them. It's gotten to the point where they call a patient a customer."

Sheffield, who has lived in the same tree-shaded yellow-brick house in Liberty City since she and her late husband bought it in 1960, heard about UNITE from a co-worker several months before the blitz began. "I said, 'Oh boy, we need it here,'" Sheffield recalls. Since then she has accompanied organizers on house calls to fellow Villa Maria CNAs and handed out union cards on her 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. shift. "When you talk to people, right away they say the union's no good," she explains, the black pen she uses at work still lodged in her curls. "They are really frightened, because the administration told them, 'If you sign you're gonna lose your job, you're gonna lose your house and car.' I say, 'That's not right A it's against the law for them to say that,' but still they're afraid. I say, 'I'm 60 years old, I'm ready to walk out the door, but I want you to make a good living and get some respect.' I say, 'If it was not good, I would not take it.' A lot of them say, 'Okay, Sheffield, if you think so. Let me think about it.'"

But archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta says that Villa Maria's administration would never indulge in such tactics. "Never, ever would that be the church's approach," asserts Agosta. "We're a pastoral organization and we support their rights to join a union. However, we're concerned about what it means to be unionized. We have people who need their paycheck, and they have to understand that if they're in a union, they may have to walk off the job because of something happening somewhere else to support what their union brothers and sisters are doing. We're trying to keep the lines of communication open so that if anybody has any questions, the supervisors and administrators are available to answer them."

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