Getting Organized

For five hours every Sunday morning, from seven o'clock until noon, Radio Continental broadcasts from a cramped closet at the back of the Acapulco Records and Video shop in Homestead. It's the only time the city's large Mexican and Central American populations hear their music on the radio: Los Tigres del Norte, Grupo Limite, Guadalupe Esparza, Vicente Fernandez. The rest of the broadcast day and week is dedicated to Christian talk shows and music, and the station, WOIR-AM (1430), changes its name back to Radio Amanecer (Radio of Awakening).

Yet since this past March something else has slipped in between the rancheras and corridos on Radio Continental. It is a fifteen-minute program the likes of which few listeners have heard before and which its hosts hope will really wake up things in the sleepy town of Homestead.

Just before eleven o'clock on a recent Sunday morning, three men and a woman make their way across a parking lot behind the record store and file through the shop's back door. They walk down a short hallway and stop outside a tiny storage room jammed with cardboard boxes of CDs and shelves of office supplies. Beyond a narrow doorway they can see a man sitting on a stool, hunched over a countertop and speaking into a microphone. A few inches from his face is a small audio control board and a CD and cassette player. This is Radio Continental's studio. There is space here for about one and a half more people. Herman Martinez, a mustachioed Salvadoran carpenter, squeezes in behind the Radio Continental disc jockey, who is announcing a break in the music for "a program of great importance to all Latinos in Homestead."

After the DJ departs, Martinez doesn't bother to sit; he bends over the stool, palms on the countertop, and aims his voice toward the microphone: "Good morning, brothers and sisters," he exclaims energetically in Spanish. "Welcome to Los Trabajadores y Sus Derechos [Workers and Their Rights]. We're here speaking to all of you who have jobs in construction, in the nurseries, in packing houses. I'm a carpenter and I've had almost every kind of job there is. I know what it's like to work for bosses who don't pay overtime, who don't let you take vacation, who abuse you physically or verbally. That's why the carpenters union has come to Homestead: because it's time to get together and change our conditions. It's time to stop being afraid, and move ahead! Now I want to welcome our brother, Angel Dominguez, who is leading the carpenters union work in Homestead."

Veteran labor activist Dominguez, a Hialeah-based organizer for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (commonly referred to as the UBC), slips through the doorway and onto the stool. "I'm happy to be here with you," the gray-haired, bespectacled Dominguez begins. "This campaign we've started in Homestead is a great challenge, but it's something the people have needed for a long time. Now, with abuse at work, it's a question of civil rights -- "

Before Dominguez can continue, Martinez begins firing questions about specific incidents workers have related to him: foremen who have hit and kicked employees; supervisors who forbid bathroom or drinking-fountain visits; employers who promise one wage but pay less (or nothing), or refuse to pay overtime for 50-hour weeks.

Dominguez doesn't have time to reply at length, but he declares that the examples cited by Martinez are violations of U.S. labor regulations. "The law is very clear," he concludes. "You have the right to organize to fight for your rights, whether you have papers or not. The law protects the worker's rights regardless of [immigration] status, race, or religion. So forget about being afraid."

Such talk may not be new or sensational, but in Homestead it's almost shocking, for this town is probably as close to virgin territory as a modern labor organizer could find. Although census and immigration data are inexact, most experts familiar with the area say the majority of blue-collar workers here are immigrants, many undocumented. They have come to Homestead for work, and if they have to put up with inhumane treatment to keep their jobs, they usually believe they have no alternative. Most have never thought about rights or laws; that is, until people like Angel Dominguez began talking about them.

The carpenters union once had a local in Homestead, but it closed about twelve years ago owing to dwindling membership. Since then no union has even attempted to tackle privately owned businesses in Homestead (the public sector is unionized here as it is elsewhere in Florida). One reason is that agricultural fieldworkers -- about seven to ten percent of the South Miami-Dade work force, according to figures compiled by the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade's business-development organization -- are powerless under state and federal law to form a union with which employers are required to negotiate an employment contract.

Employees of agriculture-related businesses who don't labor in the fields (such as nursery packing-house workers) also have been ignored by unions. South Miami-Dade construction companies, employing slightly more than seven percent of the area's work force, remain nonunion as well. Both employers and workers with false documents skirt immigration laws against hiring illegal aliens, and despite its ineradicable niche in the economy, this arrangement is also a deterrent to unionization, leaving fearful employees open to exploitation.

Whatever the situation at individual plants, no local business owner could be expected to welcome even a whisper of union activity.

Thus until recently the carpenters union has kept a low profile in Homestead, spreading a basic educational message via the AM-radio program (unlikely listening fare for owners) and quiet visits to individual employees' homes. (Like other large national unions, the UBC represents workers in many different trades and professions; it isn't limited by its name to carpentry or construction.) "First we have to educate the workers," Dominguez explains. "That's what we've been trying to do since March. They have to know their rights. We've been getting a good response, and now we're ready to start going more out into the open." On August 30, at the first public meeting of the campaign, UBC organizers, community activists, and workers agreed on two companies (one construction, one agricultural) as their initial organizing targets.

Dominguez says he can't reveal the names of the targets, however, until the UBC begins formally organizing campaigns at each site. That will involve, among other things, open meetings with committees of workers and recruitment of union members. Dominguez won't initiate that phase until he can be certain a solid majority of each company's employees is immovable in its commitment to the union. "We know the company owners are going to put a lot of resources into fighting us," Dominguez says. "The only way to win is for the workers to be united. It sounds so simple but it's so difficult. We have to tell them the reality of life if they're going to join us: They could be harassed, there could be layoffs, their hours could be cut." (Indeed a recent precedent-setting Teamsters victory at an apple-packing facility in Washington State came after years of unsuccessful campaigning and a National Labor Relations Board ruling that the company had used illegal tactics to fight the teamsters' effort.)

Ultimately the UBC must accumulate enough support at each targeted business to hold a union election. If 50 percent plus one of eligible employees vote to be represented by the UBC, federal labor law obligates the company to negotiate a contract with the union.

But going from zero to contract, company by company, is a prolonged process. And in Homestead it could all end in disastrous defeat. Dominguez, after 28 years as an organizer in several states and Puerto Rico, knows this. He has been arrested and threatened, he's won and lost campaigns, and he is proud of his reputation as an implacable enemy of the capitalist establishment. Homestead might be Dominguez's biggest challenge so far. Not only is he starting from zero, he is also the only UBC employee working to organize the area. Simultaneously busy with separate campaigns farther north in Miami-Dade and Broward, Dominguez must rely on a team of dedicated but mostly unseasoned volunteers to do much of the essential grassroots, person-to-person work in Homestead.

It's been almost twenty years since Herman Martinez first came to the United States; in that time he's lost jobs, seen his hours and wages slashed, and been harassed and lied to from Salinas to Spokane, from Peoria to the Bahamas. He fled San Vicente in 1980, when El Salvador's civil war was in full swing and tens of thousands of Salvadorans were being kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by the U.S.-backed military regime. Martinez followed a well-traveled route through Mexico and eventually arrived, without papers, in Southern California.

For years he was an itinerant laborer, but he was different from most of the thousands of desperate immigrants who needed work so badly they put up with subhuman treatment and wages below subsistence level. "The first thing I learned was my rights as an illegal alien," he recounts proudly. "You have to know your rights because sooner or later every worker has to receive the benefits they deserve."

Martinez moved to South Florida with his wife and first child in 1984, and became a legal resident with the passage of the 1986 federal immigration amnesty law. He learned carpentry in Homestead and now leaves his apartment at 7:00 a.m. to work in Broward County, returning home twelve hours later. The long drive is worthwhile because he earns more money and benefits at this job than he ever did in Homestead. Having worked on construction sites all over South Florida and the Caribbean, he notes that he's been fired many times for refusing to take a lower wage than promised.

"All the bosses in Homestead, when they see me on the street they say, 'Hi, how are you, Herman.' But they don't give me jobs," Martinez observes wryly. "They all know I won't keep my mouth closed." He's been a UBC member for less than a year but has a natural flair for the one-to-one persuasion that is the core of union organizing. After he gets home from work at 7:00 p.m. he usually has a quick dinner and heads out to talk with a friend or two about the union. So far their efforts have not been dramatic, as they have encountered widespread feelings of reluctance and fear.

The rigors of UBC's Homestead endeavor will probably be compounded by its uniqueness, says Charles Hall, associate director of the Center for Labor Research and Studies at Florida International University. Success for any union depends on whether it can negotiate a binding contract with an employer, Hall points out, and that's why farm workers in Florida have stayed largely nonunionized. Agricultural workers are excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which grants collective-bargaining rights to certain categories of workers. California is the only state to have passed a law specifically bestowing on agriculture-worker unions the right to negotiate with growers. That law resulted from decades of campaigning by the United Farm Workers, a union founded by the late Mexican-American cultural icon Cesar Chavez. (Angel Dominguez speaks reverently of his brief apprenticeship with Chavez in California twenty years ago.)

Florida has passed no such legislation. "Even though there's a broad provision in the Florida Constitution that says employees shouldn't be denied the right of collective bargaining," Hall explains, "there's no statute that gives farm workers an effective tool to negotiate." The UBC is therefore attempting as far as possible to stay on solid organizing ground: out of the fields and inside the packing houses and factories.

The Homestead effort is being funded by an annual renewable grant from the UBC national organization, which will not reveal the amount. "There are a lot of Mexican Americans and Central Americans living and working out of Homestead," says José "Pepe" Collado, a UBC regional vice president for nine Southern states. "Our concern is if you work in the construction industry, especially carpenter work, it's very unfair to have people working for six, seven, eight dollars an hour when the going rate is fifteen to twenty-plus. We are going to be in a position where we're looking for new membership very soon, and we want to make sure the workers in Homestead have union representation."

This year the carpenters union nationally will spend more than 25 percent of its budget on recruiting new members, "organizing," in union parlance. In Washington, D.C., UBC spokesman Monte Byers declined to release financial figures, but he did reveal that the union hopes eventually to put 50 percent of its budget into organizing. "The [union's central office] has restructured over the last four years," Byers explains, "with the purpose of putting its resources into the field to assist locals and councils with grassroots organizing campaigns." (Comments Hall of FIU: "That's amazing for a union that spent almost nothing [on organizing] in the past.") Other unions across the nation likewise have concentrated increasingly on broadening membership as a survival tactic, in response to a decadeslong decline in U.S. union membership and global economic trends that have upended traditional labor practices.

Collado, a Cuban exile, worked as a carpenter after coming to Miami 30 years ago. He later advanced within the UBC to become one of the highest-ranked Hispanic labor leaders in the nation. He has close ties to important politicians, and this past January President Bill Clinton named him to replace the late Jorge Mas Canosa as chairman of the President's Advisory Board on Cuba Broadcasting, which monitors Radio and TV Martí. The nomination must be approved by the Senate, however, and has been inexplicably stalled for several months.

The delay is likely linked to the administration's ambivalence about Cuba policy, but some think it has to do with recent accusations against Collado's brother, Alfredo, a UBC business agent in Miami. This past May six union employees accused Alfredo of shirking his duties and using union time for personal business. After an investigation by the South Florida Council of UBC Locals, a regional governing body, two of those employees resigned and four were fired. Pepe Collado sits on a regional executive board that oversees the council, but he asserts he was not involved with the investigation or terminations. Collado adds that the U.S. Department of Labor has also launched an investigation into the matter. (The labor department would not comment.)

That conflict is worlds away from the rain-fed fields and orchards of Homestead. Newly planted palm trees and lush tropical greenery now surround the town's freshly patched and painted homes that were left in ruins by Hurricane Andrew. It's been seven years, but the town is only now showing a bright, revitalized face.

The neighborhoods west of Krome Avenue, west of the railroad tracks, are not as bright, though. Here some roads are cratered with potholes, and the asphalt often looks as though it's been spread like peanut butter onto the dirt. Lines of clothes dry outside barrackslike rows of apartment buildings. After rain, yards become swamps.

By seven o'clock the men have returned home from their jobs, and they have a few hours to shower, eat, and drink a beer or two before going to bed. Most will be up at five or six the next morning.

Cresencio Arreaga, a 31-year-old native of Chiapas, Mexico, knows the routine. He works construction for a Miami firm and must leave Homestead before six o'clock every morning in his Chevy pickup (with failing transmission). Arreaga has been a member of the UBC for just three months but he is among the most active in the union's Homestead campaign. On a recent Monday evening he accompanies Mario Hernandez, a retired UBC organizer, and local community activist Myrian Crissien to a duplex on the west side. The three volunteers are visiting a steelworker they met while passing out leaflets before the previous day's radio show. They intend to find out more about the factory where the man works and if possible, collect names of co-workers who may be receptive to the union.

The steelworker, who looks to be in his midthirties, steps outside on to a concrete front porch, leaving the front door slightly ajar. He is wearing grimy jeans and a T-shirt, with a cap pulled far down on his deep-brown brow. Hernandez, an agile man with thinning gray hair who has made calls like this for close to twenty years, is businesslike as he shakes the man's hand. "As we told you yesterday," Hernandez begins in Spanish, "we're trying to organize the area, so we want to get enough workers together to form a committee. Of course we're going to keep names out of this," he assures the steelworker, who nods his head, expressionless but attentive. "We don't want you to lose your job."

"No, the owner doesn't like unions at all," the man agrees. He is originally from northern Mexico and worked in California for several years. A few months ago he moved to Homestead, though he plans to return to California soon. With a friend's reference he quickly got a job in Homestead's largest factory, earning ten dollars per hour. Unlike many local firms, this one pays overtime and vacation, and the man seems content with the work. Yet he listens closely to the union people, offering that a co-worker who lives across the street would probably like to talk to them and that they could obtain the names of dozens more employees from license plates on vehicles in the company's parking lot. He also tells them his foreman is a great guy and would be a good employee to talk to.

Hernandez has found that most supervisors are not good to talk to, but he takes the foreman's phone number anyway. He's thinking that later, with more workers onboard, the combined energies of all will heighten the steelworker's enthusiasm. "And even if he doesn't stick with it," Hernandez muses patiently, "we can gain other contacts from him."

"Try to mention the union to a few guys you trust at work," Arreaga urges him. "It shouldn't be you trying to convince them, but you could say something like, 'I heard about this on the radio,' or 'Some friends were telling me about the union.' That's how it happened with me."

The steelworker nods and agrees but says little. With the sky rapidly darkening, the visitors take their leave. "I'll get in touch with you tomorrow," Arreaga promises, then he climbs into his truck and drives to his apartment. He is among those who must rise at five the next morning.

Arreaga has a serious, sharp-featured face; his neatly trimmed black hair is short on the sides and fluffy on top. He has worked as an interior finisher for six years at the same Miami construction company, yet his wage is ten dollars per hour, at least eight dollars per hour under the norm for the job he does. He receives no overtime or vacation, and he pays for his own workers compensation insurance. So when a cohort began talking to him about the carpenters union, Arreaga was ready to listen. Beyond joining the union, Arreaga wanted to persuade other immigrants like himself to join. He has little to gain personally from his activism; there's no union contract at his job and little prospect of one anytime soon.

"I'm in this," he says, "because things have happened to me at work. They tell you to go here, do this, and then I find out they're not paying me what they said, or they're deducting something I didn't know about. I think I should earn more, and I see so many other workers who are entitled to more, but they don't know it." Arreaga's quiet, deferential demeanor hides a natural eloquence that has now emerged with his first foray into organizing. One thing he rarely speaks about, though, is life before Homestead. No doubt the Mexicans and Central Americans whom he addresses already know the outline of his story, because theirs are so similar.

Ten years ago Arreaga and his cousin left their town in Chiapas, the mountainous state in Mexico's far south, and traveled by bus, truck, and foot to a desolate spot in the Sonora Desert near the U.S. border. From there they walked to Arizona. "We walked for two weeks," Arreaga recalls. "At first we had a package of bread to eat, and when that was gone we ate grass. For three days we didn't eat anything. Finally we got to Tucson and found a Catholic Church where the people helped us." Arreaga harvested crops and worked construction for four years in the Carolinas and New Jersey, then moved to Homestead "because there's more work here."

Recently the handful of people who are at the heart of the local UBC effort, including Arreaga, gathered in Myrian Crissien's living room. "No [union] has even touched a nursery here," Martinez excitedly reminds the group. Dressed in his usual UBC T-shirt, shorts, and sandals, he gestures broadly. "If we touch one nursery, we touch thousands of workers. We start a fire. Even if we lose [an election], we win -- por la bulla [because of the enthusiasm generated]."

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.

"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.

"That's against the law, to threaten you for asking for a raise," Crissien answers the nursery worker. "It may be their policy to not give raises, but they can't fire you if you ask." She points to the phone number of the union office in Hialeah printed at the bottom of the leaflet. "But there are people who know much more about these things. You should call this number and ask them."

At eleven o'clock Crissien joins Arreaga, Hernandez, and Martinez in the hallway of the record store. This week the fare is the same as always, though the union phone number is repeated with more urgency and there are frequent invitations to an upcoming community meeting at which workers and organizers will meet to discuss problems and strategies.

"This is for those who want to move forward, as I do," Arreaga tells the listeners at the conclusion of the fifteen-minute program. "Sure, I felt completely alone when I was mistreated at work. But that's the purpose of the union: not to let us feel alone. Now we know they can't mistreat us physically or verbally. They have to respect us and our rights. We can have more for ourselves and our families."

As Arreaga slips out of the tiny control room, Angel Dominguez walks in. He quickly shakes Arreaga's hand, then raises his eyebrows approvingly and whispers, "That's good."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >