Blunt Trauma

Pan American Hospital, an icon in Cuban Miami, is fighting for life as it battles its own employees

While it may be true that Miami's Cuban community is far from monolithic, as Cardenas suggests, it is also true that there is a shared past, rooted in upheaval and haunted by the specter of a communist dictatorship. Witness Sanjenis's flyer, or a pre-election letter from Cardenas to colleagues in which he explained his firing: "In 1970, while still living in Cuba, I was expelled from the University of Havana for writing poetry. Very few of my friends could express their indignation; the majority were paralyzed by fear. Many years have passed and now we are no longer in Cuba, but here we also find the likeness of Cuba's repressive policies.... Like in Cuba, the obvious intention for the recent firing of employees at Pan American Hospital has been to intimidate us, as a way to silence our rights and our ideals."

Cardenas still works part-time as a physical therapist at Jackson Memorial, but he has a new career as well. He's a paid employee of the Service Employees International Union, spending at least 40 hours every week coordinating union rallies and attending hearings in bankruptcy court and mediation sessions conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. His cell phone, once the sole province of family calls, never stops ringing with union business.

"He's sort of a naturally charismatic guy, in an understated way," says SEIU president Monica Russo. "It's not like he's rock-star charismatic, it's more that you can sense a deep sincerity when he speaks. A lot of people respond to that."

Dania Jai Alai
Vicente Sanchez (shown) and Juan Carlos Cardenas were born in Havana within a year of each other, and their paths have led them to the same place again: Pan American Hospital, where Sanchez is executive director and Cardenas is one of the leaders of a burgeoning labor union
Jonathan Postal
Vicente Sanchez (shown) and Juan Carlos Cardenas were born in Havana within a year of each other, and their paths have led them to the same place again: Pan American Hospital, where Sanchez is executive director and Cardenas is one of the leaders of a burgeoning labor union

During a November meeting of pro-union hospital employees held at St. Dominic's, Cardenas led the cheers. One of the union's attorneys announced their biggest victory yet. Although the hospital's administration refused to recognize the union, the NLRB ratified the vote. Because of this, the union was able to gain standing in the bankruptcy proceedings and force the hospital to negotiate. The bankruptcy judge then ordered hospital administrators to sit down with the union and begin talks on employee compensation issues.

But the week before Christmas, Pan American fired two employees who were part of the bargaining team for SEIU. According to the union, the hospital retaliated after the two criticized Pan American administrators on Spanish-language television. Both employees have filed complaints with NLRB. "There were two people who went on the television and called me and my administration öthieves,'" Sanchez says. "Nobody can impeach my integrity, and nobody ever has. Why that degree of invective, I don't know." For his part, Cardenas says the firings gave him "a very unpleasant sense of déjà vu."

Still, Cardenas was ecstatic over the judge's order to negotiate. "This is really a big deal," he told reporters after the meeting. "It's the beginning of a new future for Pan American." Hoping to get his job back, he too has filed a complaint with the NLRB. The complaint is pending, but Cardenas clearly has his own new future with the SEIU, regardless of whether he returns to the hospital.

Sanchez, meanwhile, continues struggling to turn things around at Pan American. "This hospital was founded to help the Cuban immigrants of the Sixties," he says. "I was part of that. My father stayed here when he was very sick. I take this place and its survival personally."

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