Tough as Nails

Three years after the immigrant workers at Aljoma Lumber voted to unionize, they still don't have a contract. Why? José Lamas refuses to give them one.

From time to time the employees at Aljoma Lumber, Inc., watch nonchalantly as José Lamas descends in his helicopter, touching down in the middle of the Aljoma compound in Medley. After the rotund white-haired Lamas steps unsteadily to the ground, and the chopper has risen overhead again, a haze of dust slowly settles on workers' hardhats and drifts over the mountainous stacks of bundled boards stretching for acres along the western edge of Okeechobee Road. Hours before the landing, graveyard-shift employees will have moved any flatbed rail cars, trucks, or pallets out of the rotor's way.

Lamas, who is in his sixties, founded Aljoma in 1976. At the time he was living in Honduras, the nation he still calls home and from whose forests he fells much of the timber Aljoma later sells around the world. Lamas imports several tropical hardwoods; his company is among the world's largest importers of mahogany. At the Medley facility, workers chemically treat a huge inventory of Southern yellow pine (to make it termite- and fungus-resistant and generally more durable), which is distributed to foreign and domestic customers, such as Home Depot and other building-supply outlets. Lamas also owns a finance company and a mortgage company and has ties, through his daughter, Maria Lamas de Shojaee, to the Miami-based Shoma Homes, Shoma Development Corporation, and Shoma Commercial Real Estate, Inc. Industry analysts estimate that the closely held Aljoma Lumber records annual sales of $100 to $500 million.

Lamas knows exactly how most of the jobs at his plant should be performed, since he did many of them himself, decades ago. Sometimes dressed in a finely tailored French-cuffed shirt and pleated slacks, a windbreaker thrown over his shoulders, he checks out the operations; more often when he's in town he works in the corporate offices, on the premises. When it's time to drive to an appointment or call it a day, Lamas's black Rolls-Royce or maroon Jaguar awaits in an onsite air-conditioned garage. As he walks the few hundred feet from his office to the garage, he may greet employees along the way, especially the Spanish speakers. Lamas, who is Cuban by birth, doesn't speak English. Because close to half of his laborers speak only Haitian Kreyol, he could barely communicate with them even if he wanted to. But at least, some employees point out, Lamas isn't as haughty as his son José Antonio, who is an officer of the company.

Back in October the Aljoma workers began a three-day strike that ended up lasting six days
Steve Satterwhite
Back in October the Aljoma workers began a three-day strike that ended up lasting six days

"I've seen the old man come out and buy everyone lunch from the roach coach," remarks a veteran plant worker.

"Sure, he's done that in the past two, three months," replies another employee. "But it's a way of buying people. You might think someone is a good person when you talk to him, but in practice you realize he's a bad person."

"They snub their noses at us," complains a third lumberyard laborer. "They talk to us like we're children; they use foul language. Just because I don't drive a Rolls-Royce, and I can't afford to buy the best clothing, you look down on me. I've seen a lot of discrimination in this place. That's one of the reasons I got involved with the union."

It was largely because they had so little to lose that Aljoma's approximately 200 foreign-born unskilled workers (not including about 100 office workers and managers) voted in July 1997 to be represented by a labor union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC), Local 1554. Wages for most of those employees rarely rose above seven dollars per hour, and none received any benefits. Three and a half years later there is still no labor contract, and Lamas and his lawyers have managed to fight off legal maneuvers and sidestep rulings that would push the company closer to an agreement.

Despite a couple of one-day walkouts, a weeklong strike, and limited community pressure on Lamas to come to terms with the union, business at Aljoma continues as usual. Although the hourly pay has risen slightly, there's still no health insurance or paid vacation. And inevitably the company's stalling tactics are beginning to have the intended effect: Some employees are giving up on the union.

Nothing in U.S. labor law can force Aljoma or any other employer to sign a collective-bargaining contract. In fact a 1995 report by the U.S. Department of Labor found that one-third of all workplaces in the United States that vote to be represented by a union never obtain a contract.

"The longer it goes on, we get weaker," acknowledges plant worker Gabriel Leon, one of the UBC members on the contract negotiating team. "[Lamas] has got time on his side. The only thing keeping us going is we're really tight."

"It's a wretched life," admits Charles, shaking his head, his mouth set in a grim line. On a recent Sunday the 51-year-old truck driver, a five-year Aljoma employee, stood outside his one-room apartment in Little Haiti and apologized for not feeling sociable. On a day off he was in the middle of a massive undertaking, readying a ton of junk for shipment to Haiti. That supplements his $6.75 hourly wage. "It's a miserable life," Charles repeats, speaking in Spanish, his other language besides Kreyol. "There's no time to do anything but work. And it's not easy work. My job entails lifting a lot of wood. If we send money to our families in Haiti, we can't buy what we need here. Yesterday I had to sell a pair of shoes in the street. For a few dollars. But a few dollars is a lot."

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