Getting Organized

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

The rigors of UBC's Homestead endeavor will probably be compounded by its uniqueness, says Charles Hall, associate director of the Center for Labor Research and Studies at Florida International University. Success for any union depends on whether it can negotiate a binding contract with an employer, Hall points out, and that's why farm workers in Florida have stayed largely nonunionized. Agricultural workers are excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which grants collective-bargaining rights to certain categories of workers. California is the only state to have passed a law specifically bestowing on agriculture-worker unions the right to negotiate with growers. That law resulted from decades of campaigning by the United Farm Workers, a union founded by the late Mexican-American cultural icon Cesar Chavez. (Angel Dominguez speaks reverently of his brief apprenticeship with Chavez in California twenty years ago.)

Florida has passed no such legislation. "Even though there's a broad provision in the Florida Constitution that says employees shouldn't be denied the right of collective bargaining," Hall explains, "there's no statute that gives farm workers an effective tool to negotiate." The UBC is therefore attempting as far as possible to stay on solid organizing ground: out of the fields and inside the packing houses and factories.

The Homestead effort is being funded by an annual renewable grant from the UBC national organization, which will not reveal the amount. "There are a lot of Mexican Americans and Central Americans living and working out of Homestead," says José "Pepe" Collado, a UBC regional vice president for nine Southern states. "Our concern is if you work in the construction industry, especially carpenter work, it's very unfair to have people working for six, seven, eight dollars an hour when the going rate is fifteen to twenty-plus. We are going to be in a position where we're looking for new membership very soon, and we want to make sure the workers in Homestead have union representation."

Myrian Crissien
Myrian Crissien
Underneath their domesticated exteriors, Hernandez (center) and Crissien (right) are as radically pro-union as Dominguez (left)
Underneath their domesticated exteriors, Hernandez (center) and Crissien (right) are as radically pro-union as Dominguez (left)

This year the carpenters union nationally will spend more than 25 percent of its budget on recruiting new members, "organizing," in union parlance. In Washington, D.C., UBC spokesman Monte Byers declined to release financial figures, but he did reveal that the union hopes eventually to put 50 percent of its budget into organizing. "The [union's central office] has restructured over the last four years," Byers explains, "with the purpose of putting its resources into the field to assist locals and councils with grassroots organizing campaigns." (Comments Hall of FIU: "That's amazing for a union that spent almost nothing [on organizing] in the past.") Other unions across the nation likewise have concentrated increasingly on broadening membership as a survival tactic, in response to a decadeslong decline in U.S. union membership and global economic trends that have upended traditional labor practices.

Collado, a Cuban exile, worked as a carpenter after coming to Miami 30 years ago. He later advanced within the UBC to become one of the highest-ranked Hispanic labor leaders in the nation. He has close ties to important politicians, and this past January President Bill Clinton named him to replace the late Jorge Mas Canosa as chairman of the President's Advisory Board on Cuba Broadcasting, which monitors Radio and TV Martí. The nomination must be approved by the Senate, however, and has been inexplicably stalled for several months.

The delay is likely linked to the administration's ambivalence about Cuba policy, but some think it has to do with recent accusations against Collado's brother, Alfredo, a UBC business agent in Miami. This past May six union employees accused Alfredo of shirking his duties and using union time for personal business. After an investigation by the South Florida Council of UBC Locals, a regional governing body, two of those employees resigned and four were fired. Pepe Collado sits on a regional executive board that oversees the council, but he asserts he was not involved with the investigation or terminations. Collado adds that the U.S. Department of Labor has also launched an investigation into the matter. (The labor department would not comment.)

That conflict is worlds away from the rain-fed fields and orchards of Homestead. Newly planted palm trees and lush tropical greenery now surround the town's freshly patched and painted homes that were left in ruins by Hurricane Andrew. It's been seven years, but the town is only now showing a bright, revitalized face.

The neighborhoods west of Krome Avenue, west of the railroad tracks, are not as bright, though. Here some roads are cratered with potholes, and the asphalt often looks as though it's been spread like peanut butter onto the dirt. Lines of clothes dry outside barrackslike rows of apartment buildings. After rain, yards become swamps.

By seven o'clock the men have returned home from their jobs, and they have a few hours to shower, eat, and drink a beer or two before going to bed. Most will be up at five or six the next morning.

Cresencio Arreaga, a 31-year-old native of Chiapas, Mexico, knows the routine. He works construction for a Miami firm and must leave Homestead before six o'clock every morning in his Chevy pickup (with failing transmission). Arreaga has been a member of the UBC for just three months but he is among the most active in the union's Homestead campaign. On a recent Monday evening he accompanies Mario Hernandez, a retired UBC organizer, and local community activist Myrian Crissien to a duplex on the west side. The three volunteers are visiting a steelworker they met while passing out leaflets before the previous day's radio show. They intend to find out more about the factory where the man works and if possible, collect names of co-workers who may be receptive to the union.

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