Getting Organized

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

Whatever the situation at individual plants, no local business owner could be expected to welcome even a whisper of union activity.

Thus until recently the carpenters union has kept a low profile in Homestead, spreading a basic educational message via the AM-radio program (unlikely listening fare for owners) and quiet visits to individual employees' homes. (Like other large national unions, the UBC represents workers in many different trades and professions; it isn't limited by its name to carpentry or construction.) "First we have to educate the workers," Dominguez explains. "That's what we've been trying to do since March. They have to know their rights. We've been getting a good response, and now we're ready to start going more out into the open." On August 30, at the first public meeting of the campaign, UBC organizers, community activists, and workers agreed on two companies (one construction, one agricultural) as their initial organizing targets.

Dominguez says he can't reveal the names of the targets, however, until the UBC begins formally organizing campaigns at each site. That will involve, among other things, open meetings with committees of workers and recruitment of union members. Dominguez won't initiate that phase until he can be certain a solid majority of each company's employees is immovable in its commitment to the union. "We know the company owners are going to put a lot of resources into fighting us," Dominguez says. "The only way to win is for the workers to be united. It sounds so simple but it's so difficult. We have to tell them the reality of life if they're going to join us: They could be harassed, there could be layoffs, their hours could be cut." (Indeed a recent precedent-setting Teamsters victory at an apple-packing facility in Washington State came after years of unsuccessful campaigning and a National Labor Relations Board ruling that the company had used illegal tactics to fight the teamsters' effort.)

While Mario Hernandez expresses his solidarity with Homestead laborers, Myrian Crissien (left), Angel Dominguez, and Herman Martinez await their turns on Workers and Their Rights
While Mario Hernandez expresses his solidarity with Homestead laborers, Myrian Crissien (left), Angel Dominguez, and Herman Martinez await their turns on Workers and Their Rights
Mario Hernandez
Mario Hernandez

Ultimately the UBC must accumulate enough support at each targeted business to hold a union election. If 50 percent plus one of eligible employees vote to be represented by the UBC, federal labor law obligates the company to negotiate a contract with the union.

But going from zero to contract, company by company, is a prolonged process. And in Homestead it could all end in disastrous defeat. Dominguez, after 28 years as an organizer in several states and Puerto Rico, knows this. He has been arrested and threatened, he's won and lost campaigns, and he is proud of his reputation as an implacable enemy of the capitalist establishment. Homestead might be Dominguez's biggest challenge so far. Not only is he starting from zero, he is also the only UBC employee working to organize the area. Simultaneously busy with separate campaigns farther north in Miami-Dade and Broward, Dominguez must rely on a team of dedicated but mostly unseasoned volunteers to do much of the essential grassroots, person-to-person work in Homestead.

It's been almost twenty years since Herman Martinez first came to the United States; in that time he's lost jobs, seen his hours and wages slashed, and been harassed and lied to from Salinas to Spokane, from Peoria to the Bahamas. He fled San Vicente in 1980, when El Salvador's civil war was in full swing and tens of thousands of Salvadorans were being kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by the U.S.-backed military regime. Martinez followed a well-traveled route through Mexico and eventually arrived, without papers, in Southern California.

For years he was an itinerant laborer, but he was different from most of the thousands of desperate immigrants who needed work so badly they put up with subhuman treatment and wages below subsistence level. "The first thing I learned was my rights as an illegal alien," he recounts proudly. "You have to know your rights because sooner or later every worker has to receive the benefits they deserve."

Martinez moved to South Florida with his wife and first child in 1984, and became a legal resident with the passage of the 1986 federal immigration amnesty law. He learned carpentry in Homestead and now leaves his apartment at 7:00 a.m. to work in Broward County, returning home twelve hours later. The long drive is worthwhile because he earns more money and benefits at this job than he ever did in Homestead. Having worked on construction sites all over South Florida and the Caribbean, he notes that he's been fired many times for refusing to take a lower wage than promised.

"All the bosses in Homestead, when they see me on the street they say, 'Hi, how are you, Herman.' But they don't give me jobs," Martinez observes wryly. "They all know I won't keep my mouth closed." He's been a UBC member for less than a year but has a natural flair for the one-to-one persuasion that is the core of union organizing. After he gets home from work at 7:00 p.m. he usually has a quick dinner and heads out to talk with a friend or two about the union. So far their efforts have not been dramatic, as they have encountered widespread feelings of reluctance and fear.

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