Getting Organized

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

The steelworker, who looks to be in his midthirties, steps outside on to a concrete front porch, leaving the front door slightly ajar. He is wearing grimy jeans and a T-shirt, with a cap pulled far down on his deep-brown brow. Hernandez, an agile man with thinning gray hair who has made calls like this for close to twenty years, is businesslike as he shakes the man's hand. "As we told you yesterday," Hernandez begins in Spanish, "we're trying to organize the area, so we want to get enough workers together to form a committee. Of course we're going to keep names out of this," he assures the steelworker, who nods his head, expressionless but attentive. "We don't want you to lose your job."

"No, the owner doesn't like unions at all," the man agrees. He is originally from northern Mexico and worked in California for several years. A few months ago he moved to Homestead, though he plans to return to California soon. With a friend's reference he quickly got a job in Homestead's largest factory, earning ten dollars per hour. Unlike many local firms, this one pays overtime and vacation, and the man seems content with the work. Yet he listens closely to the union people, offering that a co-worker who lives across the street would probably like to talk to them and that they could obtain the names of dozens more employees from license plates on vehicles in the company's parking lot. He also tells them his foreman is a great guy and would be a good employee to talk to.

Hernandez has found that most supervisors are not good to talk to, but he takes the foreman's phone number anyway. He's thinking that later, with more workers onboard, the combined energies of all will heighten the steelworker's enthusiasm. "And even if he doesn't stick with it," Hernandez muses patiently, "we can gain other contacts from him."

The Martinez family has lived in Homestead for fifteen years, but Herman must drive to Fort Lauderdale to make a decent living
The Martinez family has lived in Homestead for fifteen years, but Herman must drive to Fort Lauderdale to make a decent living

"Try to mention the union to a few guys you trust at work," Arreaga urges him. "It shouldn't be you trying to convince them, but you could say something like, 'I heard about this on the radio,' or 'Some friends were telling me about the union.' That's how it happened with me."

The steelworker nods and agrees but says little. With the sky rapidly darkening, the visitors take their leave. "I'll get in touch with you tomorrow," Arreaga promises, then he climbs into his truck and drives to his apartment. He is among those who must rise at five the next morning.

Arreaga has a serious, sharp-featured face; his neatly trimmed black hair is short on the sides and fluffy on top. He has worked as an interior finisher for six years at the same Miami construction company, yet his wage is ten dollars per hour, at least eight dollars per hour under the norm for the job he does. He receives no overtime or vacation, and he pays for his own workers compensation insurance. So when a cohort began talking to him about the carpenters union, Arreaga was ready to listen. Beyond joining the union, Arreaga wanted to persuade other immigrants like himself to join. He has little to gain personally from his activism; there's no union contract at his job and little prospect of one anytime soon.

"I'm in this," he says, "because things have happened to me at work. They tell you to go here, do this, and then I find out they're not paying me what they said, or they're deducting something I didn't know about. I think I should earn more, and I see so many other workers who are entitled to more, but they don't know it." Arreaga's quiet, deferential demeanor hides a natural eloquence that has now emerged with his first foray into organizing. One thing he rarely speaks about, though, is life before Homestead. No doubt the Mexicans and Central Americans whom he addresses already know the outline of his story, because theirs are so similar.

Ten years ago Arreaga and his cousin left their town in Chiapas, the mountainous state in Mexico's far south, and traveled by bus, truck, and foot to a desolate spot in the Sonora Desert near the U.S. border. From there they walked to Arizona. "We walked for two weeks," Arreaga recalls. "At first we had a package of bread to eat, and when that was gone we ate grass. For three days we didn't eat anything. Finally we got to Tucson and found a Catholic Church where the people helped us." Arreaga harvested crops and worked construction for four years in the Carolinas and New Jersey, then moved to Homestead "because there's more work here."

Recently the handful of people who are at the heart of the local UBC effort, including Arreaga, gathered in Myrian Crissien's living room. "No [union] has even touched a nursery here," Martinez excitedly reminds the group. Dressed in his usual UBC T-shirt, shorts, and sandals, he gestures broadly. "If we touch one nursery, we touch thousands of workers. We start a fire. Even if we lose [an election], we win -- por la bulla [because of the enthusiasm generated]."

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