Freedom of Speech in Handcuffs

Miami police use an obsolete law to arrest two union activists. Too bad they didn't know the ordinance was being taken out of the code.

Salcedo, a mechanic who had worked at Terner's for 24 years, and his wife Iris Colon heard about UNITE from a friend who had been involved in a successful struggle to unionize a local nursing home. After Salcedo and Colon learned that they too had the right to form a union, they spread the word to other Terner's employees, visiting them at home or calling them after work.

Salcedo and Colon estimate that the union was supported by about half of the workers by the time Salcedo was abruptly fired. (The union must sign up 30 percent of the work force in order to petition the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] for an election.) The 41-year-old Puerto Rican says he was not given any explanation for his dismissal. "They just came up to me and said, 'You know, this is your last day,'" Salcedo recalls.

The union has filed charges with the NLRB against Terner's for gross violation of labor law. "It is illegal for a company to try to interfere with employees who are exercising their right to form a union," asserts Monica Russo, Florida director of UNITE. Salcedo's dismissal and the subsequent arrest of the two union organizers are the latest scare tactics Terner's management has used to fight the union, she says. According to organizers, workers had also been told that the factory would be forced to move its operations to Costa Rica if the union was brought in. Supervisors allegedly told employees that they had videotaped a union meeting and that the union had turned over copies of their sign-up cards, identifying those employees who were seeking membership. "It's really sickening, but intimidation is an effective anti-union tactic," Russo comments.

Since UNITE launched a campaign to unionize South Florida nursing homes last year, its leaders have become accustomed to employers who call the police. Even the Archdiocese of Miami, which owns a nursing home that was successfully organized, appealed to law enforcement when UNITE started distributing leaflets to their employees.

"Calling the police ain't no joke, especially if workers are from Haiti or Nicaragua [where union members have been killed]," Russo observes. "It's used to send a very serious message." But she adds that the police had never attempted to arrest an organizer for leafletting until the incident occurred at Terner's. (In the past thirteen months UNITE has successfully organized eleven nursing homes and two factories. The union's organizing campaign was chronicled in the March 14, 1996, New Times cover story "United They Stand.")

Russo says the arrest of Dominguez and Romano has so poisoned the atmosphere that UNITE has postponed calling an election at the factory and is instead concentrating its efforts on a legal battle regarding labor law. If the NLRB finds that Terner has violated federal law in opposing the union, it can force the company to recognize UNITE without an election. "We're not giving up, and the workers are not giving up," she declares.

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