Getting Organized

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

Angel Dominguez cautions, "Yes, but we have to win that first election as an example for the rest of the businesses here."

Mario Hernandez rises from the sofa where he's been sitting next to his wife, Justina, who enjoys accompanying him on most of his postretirement organizing trips. "And believe me," he interjects, wagging a finger, "the capitalists are capable of doing anything to break a union."

Dressed in a conservative cotton shirt and slacks, with a beeper on his belt and a day planner in his hand, Hernandez barely fits the image of the hard-bitten American union man. Yet he has been part of organized labor for as long as he's been in the United States -- 43 years -- and still marvels at the democratic system. He is also prone to passionate outbursts of classic socialist rhetoric seldom heard (or tolerated) among Miami's Cuban-exile elite.

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

"In this country the law requires justice for all," he reminds the young Arreaga, who is listening respectfully. "There is justice but there is also terrible exploitation. And here [in Florida], do you know who the worst exploiters are? Latinos who employ Latinos. Cubans who fled communism and got rich by taking advantage of their own people, poor Latinos who come to this country afraid, who don't know their rights. The [employers] are anti-communists but they're worse than Fidel! We call it abuse of power!" He slams his fist into his palm.

At moments like this it's easy to glimpse the young University of Havana student who, during the Fifties, participated in the student guerrilla movement against President Fulgencio Batista. "We did things like pour oil under police cars," Hernandez remembers with a grin, "so they couldn't drive them. Finally in 1956 my mother sent me away [to the United States]. She said, 'They'll kill you.'"

Soon after settling in Manhattan, Hernandez, a Methodist, visited a Catholic church named for Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity. There he met Justina, a newly arrived Dominican. The unlikely encounter resulted in their 1959 marriage. During their years together in New York, Hernandez was a dockworker in New Jersey and a dedicated member of the longshoremens union.

He, Justina, and their two sons moved to Miami in 1974, and he took a job in a cabinet factory, Regal Kitchens. The 500 employees were not unionized, but Hernandez and a group of colleagues soon garnered enough support to hold a union election. "We went on strike," he recounts. "By the time it was over, 100 percent of the employees were in the [carpenters] union. After eighteen years as the shop steward [at Regal], the union asked me to work for them [as an organizer], so I did."

Hernandez almost immediately became bored after his retirement last year, so now he volunteers whenever the union needs his help. He's been driving his 1983 Buick to Homestead several times a week, and he helps with another UBC campaign in Hialeah.

Washington Avenue in Homestead, restored after the hurricane, is now a brick-paved boulevard one block east of the restaurants and antique stores on Krome Avenue. Acapulco Records and Video, home of Radio Continental, is one of about a dozen small storefronts along a wide covered promenade on Washington's west side. This Sunday morning, as usual, men are passing time along the sidewalk, some in work clothes, others dressed for church in cowboy hats and modest shirts and slacks that have been laundered and pressed hundreds of times. It seems a new evangelical church opens in this area every few months, competing for members among the same pool of immigrant workers.

Los Trabajadores y Sus Derechos will air in about fifteen minutes, and Myrian Crissien, as always, will be one of the commentators. Until then Crissien, a matronly middle-age woman in thick glasses and a lace-trimmed linen dress, is bustling down the sidewalk offering flyers to the men. "Hello, I'd like you to listen to this radio program," she usually announces in sweet, high-pitched Spanish as she hands out the leaflets. If the men seem receptive or curious, she will start up a conversation.

Today she's heard of disturbing incidents: A nursery employee related that his foreman hit and pushed two workers so hard the blows broke one man's arm and the other man's leg. Crissien spots a short young man in gleaming white shirt, immaculate black jeans, black pointed boots, and fancy silver belt buckle. He is resting by one of the giant planters on the sidewalk. At first he refuses to take Crissien's flyer, but she assures him: "It's free; I'm not with the authorities. This is just about a radio show. It's to inform the workers in South Florida about their rights. There's a union forming to help people if they have problems on the job."

The diminutive man looks at the papers and says to Crissien: "A question, señora." She nods. "I've been working at a nursery for three years now. They still pay me six dollars an hour, but if I ask for a raise they threaten to fire me."

Crissien doesn't tell him, but she's been through similar experiences during several years as a tomato packer. A native of Colombia, she lives in Homestead with her husband and four teenage children in a bungalow surrounded by fruit trees. Currently Crissien volunteers her time on several community projects in addition to the carpenters union effort, and teaches reading classes on weekends. She's also trying to form a union of agricultural workers. In the packing houses, she inhaled pesticides and chemicals she believes are partly responsible for her asthma and chronic cough. She was, by her admission, unusually assertive, once promising to go work for a competitor if her boss didn't pay her overtime.

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