By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Trevor Bach
By Kyle Munzenrieder
A few months ago, soon after the ironworkers union began signing up employees at RC Aluminum Industries, about a half-dozen burly bouncer types appeared at three of the company's five Northwest Miami-Dade plants. These men were security guards, but they didn't wear uniforms or badges; they didn't have to. The workers felt very well guarded. Maybe intimidated is a better description. When one guard walked into a plant two weeks ago with a pistol prominently tucked into his waistband, a union supporter was scared enough to call 911. Police officers soon arrived and the guard (who apparently has a concealed-weapon permit but hadn't been asked to carry it on this job) cooled off in the back seat of a squad car.
That wasn't the only time tensions at RC Aluminum have edged toward violence. Judging from the flurry of allegations, it's been a constant test of brinksmanship since two ironworkers union locals began an organizing campaign among approximately 450 laborers at RC. Men on both sides claim their lives have been threatened. Grizzled union representatives swear this is the ugliest organizing battle they've ever seen. Lobbying, without success, for a truce, the Florida Council of Churches and the South Florida Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice sent letters to RC president Raul Casares. “We are writing,” the Interfaith Committee states, “to express our concern about your company's actions in regard to your employees' efforts to form a union.”
Things have been particularly unpleasant for four employees -- Robert Gari, Jose Raul Gonzalez, Edwin Wilson, and Manuel Lopez -- vocal union advocates who were fired in May and June. Union members still on the job assert their overtime hours have been eliminated while anti-union employees continue receiving overtime pay. And several employees have alleged that management harassed union supporters and offered workers “money and unspecified rewards for not engaging in union activity and for assisting the employer in negating the effects of the union campaign,” according to a union complaint. (Shipping supervisor Roberto Espino claims: “Of 90 [workers] in the shop, they bought off 27.”)
At least one RC employee, Lopez, took threats of bodily harm seriously enough to update his will and increase his life insurance. The threats, according to Lopez, came from Raul Casares. Two other workers, Gari and Espino, claim Casares threatened their lives as well. Casares has not responded to two messages left at his office; Joseph Fleming, an attorney representing RC Aluminum in union matters, says the company has denied all allegations of threats and bribery. “It's normal for people to make accusations during a passionate labor dispute,” Fleming remarks, “but when you go to a hearing and people have to speak under oath, it often turns out a lot different.”
The 65-year-old Casares is one of Miami-Dade County's most prominent citizens. He emigrated to the area from Cuba in the Fifties. Along with his wife Nancy, Casares has long been involved in charity and anti-Castro exile causes. One of the couple's three daughters, Ingrid, is a South Beach celebrity and club owner. (Both Ingrid and her father have had business ties to impresario Chris Paciello, who was arrested last year on federal murder and robbery charges; according to corporate records they also are linked to Paciello's associates Robert Stecher and Roberto Caan.
Casares's ten-year-old privately held company manufactures and installs aluminum doors, windows, shutters, and railings on luxury high-rises. Annual revenues are estimated at $21 million. Since its inception RC Aluminum has been the recipient of multimillion-dollar building contracts and glowing coverage in the Herald's business pages. Besides its five production plants in Miami-Dade, RC operates a facility in Colombia. RC employees currently are working multimillion-dollar construction deals in Naples and Orlando in addition to several local projects on South Beach, Brickell, Key Biscayne, and other prestigious sites, including the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood.
The Diplomat contract with RC, worth some $16 million, stipulates that only union installers are permitted to work on the project. Thus three years ago Casares and other officers of RC Aluminum formed a separate corporation, RC Erectors, and signed with the International Association of Bridge, Structural, and Ornamental Ironworkers. Both Casares and Ironworkers Local 272 business manager Dewey Tyler have told the Herald what a great working relationship they had.
The relationship took a turn for the worse this past May when the ironworkers launched their organizing campaign among the RC Aluminum employees at the plant and on other construction sites. “Within 72 hours we had 70 percent of the workers signed up,” recounts local 272 president David Gornewicz.
The reason for the strong response: RC's blue-collar workers wanted a share of the wealth, which had not been trickling down. “RC is a very good company,” explains Edwin Wilson, a truck driver who was fired May 12. “But el tipo no quiere pagar! The guy doesn't want to pay. I was making $5.25 [per hour] but I know other drivers who make less. There are employees who've been there four or five years making $5.75. I had to pay ten dollars every week for medical insurance and we didn't have any other benefits.”
The work force organized by the ironworkers is almost entirely foreign-born; a minority is fluent in English. The production and maintenance employees earn up to ten dollars per hour with no paid vacation or sick leave (minimum wage is $5.15); the higher-skilled installers make as much as twelve dollars per hour, working on a pay scale considerably lower than in most other regions in the United States. Union installers, however, earn up to seventeen dollars plus benefits.