By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
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.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that enforces labor laws, scheduled representation elections for July 21. Two bargaining units (some 150 production and maintenance employees in one of them, more than 250 installers in the other) would vote on the same day in two separate, secret ballots.
The company protested. The Diplomat installers already were working under a union contract with RC, lawyers argued, so any other labor contract that might result from an election would be invalid. The NLRB overruled that argument.
Balloting took place at nine locations throughout Miami-Dade and in Naples, St. Petersburg, and Orlando. NLRB observers as well as a host of company and union honchos witnessed the process. Considering the hostile atmosphere at some of the plants, the voting went smoothly. There was one unpleasant incident at the RC plant at 2600 NW 75th Avenue. Several employees noticed a security guard methodically photographing all the workers wearing union T-shirts, a classic intimidation tactic that violates federal labor regulations. “[Neutral parties] had to intervene to head off a conflict between the workers and two security guards,” recounts supervisor George Gari, in an affidavit. “They sent the guards [two blocks away] to the main plant.” Gari says he followed the guards and protested to the RC production manager. Gari, who is the nephew of fired employee Robert Gari, says he ended up exchanging heated words with Raul Casares. Gari asked for the roll of film, which the guards had turned over to Casares. “[Casares] told me I was provoking him by wearing the union T-shirt,” Gari's affidavit continues, “that he was absolutely beside himself because of the [union campaign]; and then he told the security guard (disrespectfully, using an obscenity) to give me the film. But right then Raul and the security guards went into his office and they didn't give me anything.”
Twenty minutes later Gari was called into Casares's office. “Raul asked me to take off the union T-shirt. He said he had kept his promise not to fire me, but I hadn't kept my promise to not get involved in the [union] campaign,” Gari wrote. “He said he'd made me various [monetary] offers but I had rejected them, and that he was very upset with the whole situation.”
As voting wrapped up, ironworkers organizer Gregorio Cisneros (who is just as imposing as the bouncer types) retrieved the film. When the votes were tallied the next workday, the union had won in both bargaining units.
RC Aluminum, however, is challenging the validity of a large number of ballots; if the NLRB confirms even some of the challenges, the outcome of at least one bargaining unit election could be reversed. “This is a very complex matter,” cautions attorney Fleming. “The company isn't saying it won't work with the union, but this union is trying to ignore its contractual obligations.”
Union members take a simpler view of the conflict. “[The workers] are really getting shafted,” says Manuel Lopez. “They've been mistreated for such a long time they're not going to give up now. Two years ago they got a fifteen-cent raise; this year, none. It's really sad. They're willing to work, they want RC to be the biggest and best aluminum company, but all they do is work for nothing. What could they do if the union hadn't stepped in?”
For now it's unclear which RC workers, if any, the ironworkers union will represent. An August 18 hearing has been scheduled at the downtown Miami offices of the NLRB. If the labor board certifies a union victory in one or both bargaining units, the company will be required to negotiate a contract. That is, unless it wishes to appeal, which would likely cost hundreds of thousands for legal counsel.
This past August 4 an NLRB lawyer, Jennifer Burgess-Solomon, called Local 272 president Gornewicz and attorney Fleming. The subject was the four fired RC workers. “She asked if they wanted to go back to work,” Gornewicz recalls.
Burgess-Solomon was suggesting the two sides try to come to an agreement about the workers' fate and avoid setting in motion a long legal process before the labor board. “When we find some merit to the allegations,” Burgess-Solomon confirms, “we encourage the parties to settle before we issue a complaint and go to a hearing.” Union leaders consider Burgess-Solomon's encouragement the next best thing to a back-to-work order. Fleming does not.
RC Aluminum maintains that Gari, Gonzalez, and Wilson were laid off because of cutbacks in construction projects; the three contend they got the ax because they were among the leaders of the organizing campaign. They assert that RC bosses monitored employee meetings and retaliated against the most vocal participants. Lopez was dismissed the morning after he attended a rally in support of the other three. He says he and Casares had been good friends for twelve years, but the boss “made it a personal thing” when Lopez sided with the union advocates.
“I don't think they fired me because of the union,” declares Wilson, an articulate Nicaraguan with two years of service. “I know it. Because every time I'd go to a worksite to make a delivery, I'd talk to the people. I'd say “We need to unite, because we work as hard as we can and they mistreat us; they pay us poorly.' We'd talk to people out on the jobs, and Robert Gari talked to people in the shop.”
Wilson and the other three workers say they want to return to their jobs. They want to walk into the front office together in solidarity. “I'm waiting here at home for RC to call and say “Hey Wilson, get back to work,' ” Wilson declares optimistically. “This country defends human rights, and an employer can't just throw me in the street just because I'm exercising my rights [to form a union].”
Wilson's return to RC may take longer than he expects, though.”We're not willing to let them go back,” Fleming retorts. “The people who were laid off were laid off because work was cut back, and the person who was terminated was terminated for valid reasons. But we are willing to reach some other settlement, and as we speak, we [and the union] are trying to reach an amicable conclusion to this whole matter.”