Getting Organized

For Homestead's working poor, the thought of joining a union can be frightening. So how do you fight the fear?

For five hours every Sunday morning, from seven o'clock until noon, Radio Continental broadcasts from a cramped closet at the back of the Acapulco Records and Video shop in Homestead. It's the only time the city's large Mexican and Central American populations hear their music on the radio: Los Tigres del Norte, Grupo Limite, Guadalupe Esparza, Vicente Fernandez. The rest of the broadcast day and week is dedicated to Christian talk shows and music, and the station, WOIR-AM (1430), changes its name back to Radio Amanecer (Radio of Awakening).

Yet since this past March something else has slipped in between the rancheras and corridos on Radio Continental. It is a fifteen-minute program the likes of which few listeners have heard before and which its hosts hope will really wake up things in the sleepy town of Homestead.

Just before eleven o'clock on a recent Sunday morning, three men and a woman make their way across a parking lot behind the record store and file through the shop's back door. They walk down a short hallway and stop outside a tiny storage room jammed with cardboard boxes of CDs and shelves of office supplies. Beyond a narrow doorway they can see a man sitting on a stool, hunched over a countertop and speaking into a microphone. A few inches from his face is a small audio control board and a CD and cassette player. This is Radio Continental's studio. There is space here for about one and a half more people. Herman Martinez, a mustachioed Salvadoran carpenter, squeezes in behind the Radio Continental disc jockey, who is announcing a break in the music for "a program of great importance to all Latinos in Homestead."

Angel Dominguez, who began organizing farm workers 30 years ago, considers Homestead his biggest challenge
Angel Dominguez, who began organizing farm workers 30 years ago, considers Homestead his biggest challenge

After the DJ departs, Martinez doesn't bother to sit; he bends over the stool, palms on the countertop, and aims his voice toward the microphone: "Good morning, brothers and sisters," he exclaims energetically in Spanish. "Welcome to Los Trabajadores y Sus Derechos [Workers and Their Rights]. We're here speaking to all of you who have jobs in construction, in the nurseries, in packing houses. I'm a carpenter and I've had almost every kind of job there is. I know what it's like to work for bosses who don't pay overtime, who don't let you take vacation, who abuse you physically or verbally. That's why the carpenters union has come to Homestead: because it's time to get together and change our conditions. It's time to stop being afraid, and move ahead! Now I want to welcome our brother, Angel Dominguez, who is leading the carpenters union work in Homestead."

Veteran labor activist Dominguez, a Hialeah-based organizer for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (commonly referred to as the UBC), slips through the doorway and onto the stool. "I'm happy to be here with you," the gray-haired, bespectacled Dominguez begins. "This campaign we've started in Homestead is a great challenge, but it's something the people have needed for a long time. Now, with abuse at work, it's a question of civil rights -- "

Before Dominguez can continue, Martinez begins firing questions about specific incidents workers have related to him: foremen who have hit and kicked employees; supervisors who forbid bathroom or drinking-fountain visits; employers who promise one wage but pay less (or nothing), or refuse to pay overtime for 50-hour weeks.

Dominguez doesn't have time to reply at length, but he declares that the examples cited by Martinez are violations of U.S. labor regulations. "The law is very clear," he concludes. "You have the right to organize to fight for your rights, whether you have papers or not. The law protects the worker's rights regardless of [immigration] status, race, or religion. So forget about being afraid."

Such talk may not be new or sensational, but in Homestead it's almost shocking, for this town is probably as close to virgin territory as a modern labor organizer could find. Although census and immigration data are inexact, most experts familiar with the area say the majority of blue-collar workers here are immigrants, many undocumented. They have come to Homestead for work, and if they have to put up with inhumane treatment to keep their jobs, they usually believe they have no alternative. Most have never thought about rights or laws; that is, until people like Angel Dominguez began talking about them.

The carpenters union once had a local in Homestead, but it closed about twelve years ago owing to dwindling membership. Since then no union has even attempted to tackle privately owned businesses in Homestead (the public sector is unionized here as it is elsewhere in Florida). One reason is that agricultural fieldworkers -- about seven to ten percent of the South Miami-Dade work force, according to figures compiled by the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade's business-development organization -- are powerless under state and federal law to form a union with which employers are required to negotiate an employment contract.

Employees of agriculture-related businesses who don't labor in the fields (such as nursery packing-house workers) also have been ignored by unions. South Miami-Dade construction companies, employing slightly more than seven percent of the area's work force, remain nonunion as well. Both employers and workers with false documents skirt immigration laws against hiring illegal aliens, and despite its ineradicable niche in the economy, this arrangement is also a deterrent to unionization, leaving fearful employees open to exploitation.

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