United They Stand

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

From the beginning of the campaign, UNITE has taken a somewhat different tack with the archdiocese's homes, a conciliatory strategy that includes a meeting scheduled for earlier this week between a committee of workers and union leaders and top church officials. UNITE seeks Wenski's counsel and encouragement concerning its campaign. And while he's not directly concerned with the church's nursing home operations, he can influence policymaking at the homes. UNITE's ultimate goal is simply to build support within the archdiocese for what the union contends has always been the church's pro-union position. Enough support, in fact, that the archdiocese would agree to voluntarily recognize UNITE as bargaining agent for the nursing home employees, instead of the union taking the more direct, antagonistic approach of petitioning for an election. Russo and her staff have opted for this tactic even after having signed up 65 percent of Villa Maria's workers by early March.

"The Catholic Church has some responsibility to the community, unlike private corporations where there are no such expectations," explains Russo. "The archdiocese is a nonprofit institution, and we need to make them accountable to the community. We feel optimistic they would respect workers' rights to organize."

However, in recent weeks it became evident that the archdiocese would not be as receptive as the union had hoped. After some workers and organizers expressed impatience at the slow pace of the campaign, and after the archdiocese hired Kunkel, Miller & Hament, the Tampa-based union-busting law firm, the union stepped up its activity. In a letter and a video distributed to Villa Maria employees, past and present statements by Catholic leaders, including Pope John Paul II, endorse the worthiness of unions and the right of workers to form them. Additionally, UNITE has distributed to parishes a petition that quotes the same pronouncements and concludes, "We join with the U.S. Bishops who believe these teachings of our Church also apply to workers in Catholic institutions such as [name of the home] owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami."

But UNITE still has not petitioned the NLRB for a vote. Cassandra Davis, lead organizer at Villa Maria, admits to being somewhat apprehensive when she learns that two ex-labor organizers who now consult for Kunkel, Miller & Hament have begun meeting with workers at the home; not only that, but she's concerned about steps management has taken to pacify long-standing employee grievances, such as removing an unpopular supervisor. Both are classic moves companies use to derail unions. "I've never run a campaign lasting this long," Davis worries. "These guys are getting ready to knock us out of the box if we don't take some kind of action. Some of the women [workers] say, 'I don't want to go against the archdiocese like that.' I say, 'Listen, the archdiocese is not Jesus Christ and they don't walk on water.'"

Even as Davis, Russo, and Villa Maria CNAs were preparing to meet with church officials, UNITE organizing teams were gearing up for elections at Hebrew Home and Palm Garden, and making plans to organize other area nursing homes. The NLRB has set a March 21 election date for Hebrew Home, and workers from other homes, including Villa Maria, are volunteering to help with the campaign there. Meanwhile, no one expects either an election or voluntary recognition of UNITE at Villa Maria in the immediate future. "The momentum takes us a different way each day," Russo enthuses. "We have different time lines, a different rhythm for each home we're concentrating on, but it's all part of the bigger picture, which includes the whole [nursing home] industry.

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