By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Trevor Bach
By Kyle Munzenrieder
We've been training for this moment not just the past few hours or days, but for the past few years," Monica Russo declares emphatically, her voice tinged with a southern drawl. "And now the moment has arrived." She paces, lips pursed, pausing for a Haitian man to translate her words into Creole, and then for a Peruvian woman to put everything into Spanish. The 31-year-old Russo -- stylishly dressed, bespectacled, no makeup, simply done shoulder-length brown hair A doesn't remotely resemble the popular image of a labor union boss. Yet that's what she is: the southern regional director of organizing for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).
At this moment, on a chilly morning in early January, Russo is standing in front of about 50 people in a conference room at the Howard Johnson Hotel on NW 163rd Street in North Miami. She's kicking off a massive campaign to unionize nursing home employees throughout South Florida, where the booming health-care industry employs increasing numbers of immigrants in low-paying, nonunion jobs. Nearly half of those jobs belong to certified nursing assistants (CNAs), also called nurses' aides, who earn an average of $6.03 per hour while performing one of the most dangerous jobs for women in the U.S., at least according to a study done last year by the Washington, D.C.-based Service Employees International Union.
Russo has spent her ten-year adult professional career as a labor organizer in the Southeast. And even though she herself has never worked in a nursing home, for this campaign she has corralled dozens of organizers and union members with experience as factory and/or nursing home workers.
The translations completed, Russo resumes. "What are we gonna talk about?" she asks. "Conditions for nursing home workers in South Florida have never been worse. It's so bad that women who've been working as CNAs up to twenty years are still making $5.25 an hour. How can you afford to pay $300 a month for medical insurance when you're making $5.25 an hour!" Russo shouts. Her audience responds with the nodding of heads, the clapping of hands, and calls of affirmation. "Not only are the workers makin' no money," she continues, "but they're suffering from back injuries, injuries to their legs, arms, shoulders -- injuries they suffer for life."
Cassandra Davis, standing at the back of the room, knows all this and every other pitfall of the profession. Davis, a tall woman with a determined gaze, worked as a CNA for fourteen years in her home state of Indiana. The Teamsters had organized health-care workers there, and Davis was an early and active union member. Although she loved her work, she loved union business even more, and now her job as a UNITE organizer in the South keeps her on the road three weeks out of each month, away from her home and husband back in Gary. Along with about ten other itinerant organizers, she has come to Miami to work alongside local UNITE staffers and a contingent of rank-and-file members.
"We think it's bad now -- we ain't seen nothin' yet!" Russo tells the crowd. "With the cuts coming down from Washington, the entire bottom is gonna fall out. There's not gonna be nothing for workers. So there's never been a better time in history for nursing home workers to organize than right now. Today. Not just one nursing home. Unless we organize hundreds and hundreds of workers all over South Florida, we won't have the power to defend ourselves against the cuts coming down now. The workers are ready, and all they're waiting on is us to back 'em up. Our job now is to go and talk to people wherever we find 'em -- at home, at their second job, on the radio, on the job. We need to let 'em know what their rights are. And we need to make sure they know this ain't no freebie. This is gonna be a fight. We need to prepare our people for the bosses' campaign of intimidation that we all know because we've been through it many times. How many of you been threatened for getting a union?"
Among those waving their hands in the air is Jean-Claude Demosthene, the personable young Creole translator. He immigrated to Miami seven years ago from Port-de-Paix, Haiti, and is a single father of a two-year-old girl. Until last fall, Demosthene worked in a warehouse at Parts Depot, Inc. and was among several active UNITE members. He was also one of about a dozen union members who were told they were being laid off from the company for economic reasons; however, they're certain they were let go in retaliation for their union activity, and UNITE lawyers have asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to order their reinstatement. Demosthene has become a valued rank-and-file organizer for UNITE and is considered an instrumental liaison with the city's Haitian community in this campaign. "Talking to my people," he says often, placing a hand over his heart and tilting his angular, vaguely feline face.
Winding up her pep talk, Russo prepares to hand out manila folders bearing lists of names, addresses, positions, shifts, and whatever other information organizers have been able to glean about workers at several area nursing homes. Two- and three-person teams will fan out from Homestead to Fort Lauderdale to announce the start of what is generally called "the blitz." For the next two weeks, union campaigners will work around the clock to make their presence and intent inescapably clear, both to employees and to management.
"When we're out there, we have no time to waste," Russo concludes. "Remember, our vision is to change the way nursing homes operate in South Florida."
When UNITE organizer Gihan Perera and Lionel Laurat, a union member on leave from his factory job as a sewing machine mechanic, drive to northwest Dade late on a Saturday morning, they know the 63-year-old Haitian CNA they are looking for wants to introduce a union into the Villa Maria Nursing Center where she works. And they know from talking to other CNAs that she is respected not just for her age and her fifteen years at the North Miami nursing home, but also for her great influence among her Haitian co-workers. Perera and Laurat's mission is to persuade her to bring others into the union.
By now the UNITE organizers have some idea of the floor plans and working conditions in a dozen area nursing homes, as well as who the best-known employees are and what shifts they work, and how sympathetic or unsympathetic their supervisors may be to the possibility of a union. This information, garnered from conversations with workers and through other channels the union doesn't want to make public, is the starting point for the blitz. (While organizers obviously want to avoid tipping their hand to nursing home operators, they also fear the clout business interests have with the state legislature, which periodically entertains proposals to limit access to public records.)
As the campaign progresses, computer-generated lists will be compiled and posted at UNITE's Allapattah headquarters. The lists, which contain the names and addresses of workers, show who has been visited at home. They also contain a numerical ranking characterizing a worker's estimated level of support for the union, and, most important, a notation indicating whether she (or occasionally he -- there are some male nurses' aides) has signed a yellow card declaring her intention to join UNITE. Depending on the reception UNITE gets at the homes initially targeted, Russo may decide to concentrate more on one or pay less attention to another. "We just cast a wide net to see what jumped," she notes about the initial few weeks. "We really didn't know what to expect."
Once 30 percent of the employees at any nursing home have signed the cards, the union can petition the NLRB -- the federal agency created in 1935 to protect workers' rights to organize unions -- to hold a vote. If the union wins a majority of that vote, it becomes the official bargaining agent for all employees. (In Florida, a right-to-work state, no employee is required to join a union, but any contract negotiated by the union applies to members and nonmembers alike.)
Perera and Laurat find Yolaine (not her real name) standing in the driveway of her brown brick house. She wears an ankle-length ruffled white nightgown covered with a long pajama top, white socks, and brown sandals. Perera, tall and thin with short, neatly barbered black hair, strides up and hugs the woman. "Hey, how you doin'?" he asks. Yolaine smiles wearily, and the trio files into her living room.
"What's going to happen if we sign the cards and after that the management doesn't want the union coming in, then they fire people?" Yolaine wants to know. It's illegal to do that, replies Perera. By law the workers have the right to organize. In any case, he adds, the union never shows the cards to other workers or to anyone connected with the employer. Yolaine listens dispassionately, appearing almost convinced.
Even before the blitz started, Villa Maria's management held what it called an informational meeting -- what the union called a brainwash meeting. Workers said they were told they'd lose their homes, cars, and jobs if they joined a union. The 272-bed Villa Maria, which the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami bought two years ago from an order of nuns, is one of three nursing homes the archdiocese owns in Dade County. Archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta denies that Villa Maria administrators would threaten employees. Tensions escalated at the nursing home when union teams showed up to hand out leaflets and talk to workers between shifts, and North Miami police were called in to disperse them. One morning a security guard threatened to turn a hose on the union advocates. (At St. John's, another home owned by the archdiocese, police were also called in, and that nursing home's administrator came out to shoo away the union people.) Still, Yolaine insists she's so tired of the long hours and poor pay that she isn't fazed by the Villa Maria administration's tactics.
"I've been there fifteen years," she says. "And how much you think I get?"
"Ten, eleven dollars an hour," Perera suggests, knowing full well the real answer will be far less.
"Six-ninety. Last week they gave me a thirteen-cents raise. They give us insurance, but we pay $35 every fifteen days. It would be $378 per month for my family; that's why I don't put my kids in. But I got insurance because I'm old." Yolaine looks sideways at the 25-year-old Perera, who's sitting beside her on a cushiony brown sofa. A teenage boy and girl drift in and out of the adjacent kitchen, nodding politely at the visitors. Yolaine smiles and smoothes her uncombed hair. This is her only weekend off all month.
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."
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.
"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.
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."
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.