Tough as Nails

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.

"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."  

Charles isn't his real name. He's one of the stalwart union supporters at Aljoma and is considered one of the leaders of the Haitian employees. He says he fears retaliation from the company if his name is published.

Everywhere -- on his bed, on the floor, on the stove, on every table and chair, spilling out the front door on to the driveway where his ancient van is parked -- were the contents of a good-size junk shop: clothes and shoes, computer keyboards and monitors and modems, parts of televisions and VCRs and radios and CD players, CDs and cloth flowers, pots and pans -- things scavenged from the street, collected at churches and from other men in the same straits. Charles was trying to bag the items so he could throw everything into his van, with its bald tires and dangerously slack steering wheel, drive down to the Miami River, and sell the stuff to people on a boat headed for Haiti.

"It may be worthless," Charles explains, looking overwhelmed by the mass of castoffs that has conquered his small quarters, "but in Haiti, nothing is worthless. People find a way to use anything."

Charles's wife and four children live in Port-au-Prince, and he took off two weeks to visit them this past November, the first time in almost seven years. Since he, like all his co-workers, receives no paid vacation, the visit was a major financial setback. "We live day to day knowing we have no security," Charles says. "At any time I could be kicked out in the street." He is one of a minority of Aljoma's Haitian workers who has a phone in his apartment. Recently, though, the phone company cut off service until he pays his bill.

Most of the men who spend eight or ten hours per day toiling at Aljoma would be surprised to learn about their Jaguar-driving employer's humble origins. "The owner is someone who has worked himself out of positions similar to those these people are in, so he's self-made," says Miami labor attorney Joseph Fleming, who has represented Aljoma throughout its long standoff with the carpenters union. "He had a number of jobs, one on the street selling flowers. He went into Honduras, worked in a lumberyard, and he's very, very smart, so he was able to intuitively figure out how the business worked. He ended up being able to purchase a number of operations -- despite the fact he doesn't speak English -- and has substantial holdings in different countries."

Since neither Lamas nor any of the officers of Aljoma would speak to New Times about the company or its present labor situation, Fleming served as spokesman. He would impart little information, though, about Lamas's background or the extent of his overseas operations. Lamas's employees say much of the lumber they handle arrives from Honduras, where he is known to own extensive timber acreage and sawmills. Aljoma also has a distribution and treatment plant in Ponce, Puerto Rico; two U.S. distribution offices are in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and Fairhope, Alabama. In 1999 Dun & Bradstreet ranked Aljoma number 24 among Florida's top 50 foreign-affiliated companies. Then, last March, Universal Forest Products, a multinational corporation based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, announced plans to acquire Aljoma. Three months later Universal indicated the deal was off, citing "several business and operational issues that could not be overcome at this time." Both corporations appeared to leave the door open for a rethinking, and Fleming said recently: "I don't think anyone has precluded anything in the future." Neither he nor union operatives would speculate on whether labor unrest had anything to do with the canceled buyout.

Regardless of the reasons, the carpenters union has found all company news worth exploring -- word of labor unrest in Aljoma's Honduras operations, for example, and documented environmental violations here at the Medley plant. The goal is to gain any leverage possible in the union's multifront public-relations drive that has now begun in earnest. These days, as unions fight to increase membership, Local 1554 is working toward a lofty and radical goal: organizing construction workers throughout South Florida.  

Mike Ozegovich, formerly the executive director of the South Florida office of the AFL-CIO, moved to the UBC offices just a few months ago, specifically to work on the Aljoma campaign. (His title is now UBC business agent.) The carpenters union has begun to go into the community at large as a way to exert greater pressure on the company to sign a contract. Such public-relations efforts, which organizers refer to as a "corporate campaign," are increasingly undertaken by unions with deep pockets, believing they've exhausted every other means of persuading employers to come to terms on a contract.

"So we've gone to Honduran unions, and we're going to Puerto Rico and every place he has his money, and every place he has his holdings, including Shoma Homes," Ozegovich says. "We'll go to various groups: religious, legislative, the people who ship his materials, who unload them, cut them. We will ask them to send a letter to Mr. Lamas, requesting he resolve those issues with his employees, and make it clear they're hoping to see a proper outcome."

This past Labor Day, at a picnic sponsored by the carpenters union for the Aljoma workers, several local religious leaders pledged to publicly seek support for the union, according to Local 1554 business representative Angel Dominguez. An October 16 letter to Lamas from the South Florida Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice has received no response.

Since Aljoma usually doesn't sell directly to the public and never has had much need to maintain an image, the union is at a disadvantage in seeking to use public opinion to prompt a change in the company's stance. Yet Dominguez and his cohorts say they have the choice of either giving up or using every weapon at their disposal. "Community support, when you get a lot of groups behind you, does have more influence than people might think," Dominguez promises. After a pause the veteran organizer adds, "But this is one of the most difficult campaigns I've ever done. [Lamas] isn't part of the community. He's never here; he's not accountable to the public."

The time and money the UBC and the AFL-CIO are dedicating to this project are extensive; the carpenters union's total Aljoma-related expenses reached more than $200,000 by the end of 2000, according to Dominguez. Since the AFL-CIO already has an office dedicated to corporate campaigns, Ozegovich says that organization isn't spending any more than the salaries it would be paying anyway. As for Aljoma's union-related expenditures, just consider the services over three years of an attorney who charges in the neighborhood of $2000 per day. All of it goes to influence the destinies of 200 workers whose individual earnings are a comparative pittance and, in fact, probably will never be enough -- with or without a contract -- to properly support themselves, much less their families.

"It's not really a question of money," asserts Ozegovich. "It's control. What we're looking to do is have José Lamas come to the table and resolve the issues. He's not looking to do that, because he thinks U.S. laws can be used over a long period of time to exhaust employees. He'll spend an awful lot of money to keep those employees from having a collective-bargaining agreement. So basically what we've said is, if the ante is that high, then we're upping the ante. Employers feel if they can hold off long enough, maybe the problem will go away. It's a matter of convincing them we're not going away."

Before last spring Aljoma had refused to recognize the UBC as the bargaining agent for the employees, even though the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had certified the union as such following a 142-48 victory in the July 1997 election. "In their continuing attempt to defeat the union," relates Kathleen Phillips, the attorney representing the UBC, "they appealed everything, took exception to everything. They refused to recognize the union, refused to negotiate; they surveilled union [member] employees. They refused to allow the union to go on to the plant, which is something we've always done." Fleming counters that union representatives have been allowed on to the premises, except when "there was no purpose for their visit."

As the months rolled by with no cooperation from Aljoma, the union filed complaint after complaint with the NLRB. Workers alleged Aljoma management carried out discriminatory firings, made threats and told lies to discourage union support, harassed union backers, and made arbitrary transfers to less-desirable jobs. At the same time, organizers hit Spanish- and Kreyol-language radio to rally pro-union and anti-Aljoma sentiment. Employees told of racial insults regularly endured by Haitians; several witnesses to one incident tell of a supervisor who, charged with handing out the traditional Thanksgiving turkeys to employees, threw the frozen birds down on the floor in front of the Haitian workers, turned, and walked away without acknowledging their presence. Another time, workers say, a Haitian and a Latin employee got into a fistfight, but only the Haitian was suspended.  

Some employees also complained to union officials of chemical contamination problems at the plant, and the union helped several of them file complaints with the Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM). Yet since DERM conducts quarterly inspections at Aljoma, it's not clear that the complaints called attention to problems the inspectors wouldn't have caught in the first place. At his August 2000 visit, inspector Allen Cox found contaminated groundwater-monitoring wells and several other violations of environmental statutes concerning recordkeeping and cleanup of waste and debris. Currently, Cox says, Aljoma is in the process of fixing the problems. "We have prescribed measures for dealing with contamination," he explains, "and they're following those measures."

This past October, however, DERM again cited Aljoma for a fuel spill on the grounds by a subcontractor. Since the groundwater tables from which the South Florida population draws its drinking water are as shallow as five feet below the surface, Cox says, any hazardous chemicals leaching into the table are dangerous. Fleming said in early December the subcontractor had promised to clean up the spill. It's not clear if DERM has accepted this plan, since as of December 7 the agency had yet to release documentation regarding the incident.

The ongoing crises at Aljoma have attracted almost no media attention, though a one-day walkout early last March did receive brief mention in the Sun-Sentinel and in New Times. Within days of the work stoppage, the union and the company agreed to a settlement of about twenty charges of unfair labor practices brought against Aljoma by the NLRB. The settlement resolved all pending charges against Aljoma and avoided a long trial before an administrative law judge. It also included a pledge by Aljoma to recognize the union and to begin negotiating a contract. Meanwhile, if Aljoma might have been tempted to delay negotiations another two and a half years, a bargaining order came down from the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the company had appealed an earlier NLRB order to negotiate). Workers were optimistic the company finally was going to get serious about a contract.

Time means nothing, though, when money is no object. Negotiators for Aljoma and the UBC have met every month since March but are hung up on the two most important issues: pay and job security. "We believe there's absolutely no intent to reach an agreement," attorney Phillips says. "Everything they do indicates an attempt to eliminate the union. One of the things they tried to propose was to essentially buy us off; an amount of money would be paid to all employees if we would just go away."

The National Labor Relations Act requires employers to negotiate "in good faith," though good faith is not defined, and a lack of it brings no significant penalties. A federal mediator has been involved in the several recent bargaining sessions, but the mediator has no power to force anyone to do anything. (In extremely rare cases, the NLRB may find an employer is guilty of a pattern of bad-faith negotiating and impose a first contract and fines.) For their part, Fleming contends, Aljoma representatives "are negotiating in good faith."

The union has filed more than a dozen new charges against Aljoma, some accusing the company of negotiating in bad faith, and some that have been rejected by the NLRB. About ten charges currently are being investigated. Since the beginning of the union campaign at Aljoma, the UBC has filed more than 50 charges (complaints) with the NLRB, an exceptionally high number for any labor dispute, even one of this duration, according to George Aude, the NLRB field attorney handling the case.

In the Aljoma negotiations, the most offered by way of a pay increase has been nine cents per hour. "I'd call that a slap in the face," says Greg Nickloy, a veteran UBC negotiator based in Toledo, Ohio. He travels to Miami each month to lead the union team composed of about ten workers, a couple of union representatives, and sometimes the union's attorney. "They've taken probably the most cavalier approach I've seen in bargaining," Nickloy adds.

Aljoma also has offered weeklong vacations to employees with a year of seniority and to contribute to the cost of insurance for individual employees but not for dependents. "I have yet to see a place that hasn't had some semblance of health insurance, maybe even a copay setup," Nickloy adds. "They basically said straight-out to us: “We have a steady stream of people coming into this country, and these wages are what they get anywhere.'"  

It's true that workers in South Florida are near the bottom of the national pay scale. It's true, too, that Miami's blue-collar workforce is overwhelmingly composed of people who came here from other nations and are glad to have any job at all, at any wage, and with any working conditions. Statistics compiled by FIU's labor center are telling: Twenty years ago 39 percent of Dade County construction workers were immigrants; by 1999 the number was up to 75 percent.

Aljoma contends it can't substantially increase wages and remain competitive in the U.S. lumber industry. If wages are too low for some workers, argues Aljoma lawyer Fleming, it's because that's how the U.S. economic system works. "That's why spouses are working," he offers. "You have to understand, there are some entry-level jobs, and the people in them -- unless they figure out a way to go to something better -- they're not going to make money. People say, “What does it matter if the employees get a raise?' The construction industry raises the cost of wood so houses cost more, and what about the people who buy houses? A union isn't always good. [Aljoma] causes employment and provides benefit to the people. They try to characterize it as paying inferior wages, but you don't convert an industry or job into something it is not."

"What about the moral issue?" protests Nickloy. "You have an owner who is a multimillionaire, and his employees may have to work two or three jobs to pay their bills. How are they supposed to make a go of it in this country with those wages? Another thing that's hard for me to understand is, how can you exploit your own?"

The main entrance to the fenced and walled-in Aljoma Lumber compound is off NW 121st Way, a rutted road with wide dirt shoulders that seems to disappear into the towering Australian pines to the west. In a lot across the street, employees park their cars, and transport trucks are lined up awaiting drivers. Florida East Coast Railroad tracks run through the lumberyard, delivering several cars of wood every day. Fine dust coats plants, animals, truck cabs, and two-by-fours.

Back in late October, when the union called a three-day strike that ended up lasting six days, the roadside along Aljoma's north wall was crowded with men ten hours per day. Some swigged Sprite or Coke and held picket signs; a dozen Haitian employees put up a four-corner tent and for hours drummed out songs and calls to the lwa, gods, in the complex African rhythm codes long part of the Haitian culture. Fourteen-wheelers rumbled by in flurries of dust, bouncing through potholes as some of the drivers, in solidarity, sounded their harsh horns on top of the drumming. Many of the drivers were temps or independent truckers, however, brought in before and after the strike began. Most of the temps didn't honk.

In all, says UBC business representative Angel Dominguez, about 80 percent of the bargaining unit struck. The union paid each striker a per diem of $60, he adds, payments that totaled $50,000 by the final day, Wednesday, October 25. Dominguez hadn't planned on shelling out that much; he'd called the strike for three days, but Aljoma locked out the workers for an additional three days.

"José Lamas has not acted in good faith, and that's why we decided to strike," explains Manuel Ortiz, a union shop steward who has worked in Aljoma's export section for the past two years. He stood every day of the strike among the crowd arrayed along the shoulder of the road, some men finding shade in the shadow cast by the walls of the company garage just on the south side of a tall barbed-wire-topped hurricane fence. Ortiz, like many of his cohorts, wasn't an employee when the union won the 1997 election. Turnover is high, and there is never a lack of new applicants. The steady stream of immigrants pouring into South Florida ensures an almost unlimited supply of willing workers. That could be one reason a lot of Aljoma old-timers feel even less secure than the rookies. "There are men who've been working here for twelve years, seventeen years, nineteen years, making $6.75 and $7.25 per hour," Ortiz went on, grimacing under the hot sun. "He has enough money to pay everyone a decent wage, but he's just laughed at the workers, laughed at the union, laughed at the labor board."

The Aljoma mess has come to be a test of the carpenters union's ability to transform itself. Like most labor unions in the United States these days, the UBC has had to make wholesale changes just to survive. A union-hostile place such as South Florida, with its below-average wages and almost 60 percent foreign-born workforce, poses unique challenges to any organizer. Unskilled immigrants until recently have been the scourge of organized labor. Unions have long excluded these laborers from membership. The prevailing view was that immigrants take jobs from union workers and undercut local wage scales. But the labor movement eventually had no choice but to recognize reality: With only 14 percent of all U.S. workers represented by unions (as opposed to 28 percent in 1966), unions need the fast-growing unskilled labor force to survive. Almost 16 million foreign-born men and women are employed across the nation (9.5 million of those are noncitizens), making up almost 12 percent of all people who currently have jobs. In February 2000 the AFL-CIO national leadership voted to endorse amnesty for undocumented immigrants, a major turnaround in the very character of the labor movement. Until then organized labor supported harsh limits on immigration and sanctioning of employers who hired illegal aliens.  

Changing the outlooks of the thousands of union members across the nation, however, is another matter. It might seem that unions in Florida would be competing to sign up immigrants. After all, Florida is dependent on cheap labor, and it's a right-to-work state (where union membership is not mandatory, even if a workplace votes to be represented by a union, thus limiting the number and influence of dues-paying members). But it's only been when union membership declined to very low levels that the organizations, always overwhelmingly white male enclaves, began to change for their own survival. According to a study earlier this year by Bruce Nissen and Guillermo Grenier of the Center for Labor Research at Florida International University, the building trades unions (such as the UBC) have been slower to accept immigrants than the industrial and garment unions but have still shown progress. The study commends the UBC leadership for its "insistence on a more representative and diverse union" and singles out Local 1554 (the Aljoma local) for its particularly inclusive efforts.

According to figures from the FIU labor studies center, carpenters union membership in South Florida fell from about 12,000 throughout the Sixties to 3300 in 1980. The UBC, along with other national unions, launched an organizing push in the mid-Nineties, targeting trades previously untouched by unions, such as low-level construction, maintenance, and agriculture-related jobs. Currently the UBC has about 3840 members in South Florida, a third of them Hispanic, compared with eighteen percent Hispanic in 1973. The going has not been easy; Local 1554, which organizes nontraditional industrial sites as well as traditional carpentry jobs, has won six elections in the past three years but finalized three contracts -- an above-average record.

Attorney Fleming knows it's tough for local union organizers. And he is paid to make things even harder, to capitalize on every weakness. (Fleming also represents Gelco, a flower company whose carpenters union recently won a representation election.) "This union has not organized a significant part of the construction industry here and is not a very vibrant labor union," he asserts. "They had high wages and weren't open to everybody in the late Fifties and Sixties, so they got underpriced by the many skilled workers coming into this country who just wanted jobs. Now they're trying to reorganize, they want to impose higher wages, and employers are resisting that because it tends to price them out of the market."

When three employees of the wood-treatment plant reported for work after being out on strike, they were told to clean out their lockers. They were being reassigned. The three -- Daniel Guzman, Ernest Santiago, and Gabriel Leon -- had been among the most vocal union advocates and sit on the contract negotiating committee.

They also had some of the best jobs in the facility, running the computerized treatment operations. The employees continue in their new positions at the same pay, each a little less than nine dollars per hour. But new men already are being trained for their old jobs, and the new jobs are uninteresting, they say. Worse, they've been humiliated. "I'm going from a position of having to use my mind to standing eight hours a day with a little hammer, classifying wood," says 38-year-old Leon, a plainspoken Cuban-born transplant from New York who has worked at Aljoma for three years. Lumber has to be classified by appearance, density, and defects so it can be priced accordingly.

"Two days ago the machine that spits out the lumber [for classification] broke down, and they sent me outside to make bundles [of wood]," Leon recalls. He's wearing a black UBC T-shirt on his wiry frame. He gestures quickly, watching his listeners intently. "Everyone was saying, “Look at him. He went on strike, and now he's out there.' I'm not going back out there again, period."  

The union has filed complaints with the NLRB, alleging that the transfers were in retaliation for the employees' union activities, a practice prohibited by the National Labor Relations Act. Fleming, however, explains that Aljoma took the action because the three men actually had been doing the work of supervisors, positions not included in the union bargaining unit. In fact the three had been offered the title of supervisor (doing the same jobs) but had refused, seeing the offer as a move to undercut the union.

"The transfers had nothing to do with the union," Fleming contends. However, an October 26 memo to Leon from Aljoma's chief financial officer, David Flinn, states, "Because of issues raised during the strike as to the treating plant, we are going to reassign you." The memo doesn't specify what the issues were. Fleming says, "It was a partial cessation of operations, but I can't say the company lost money. I don't think a strike of that duration created major problems. But the company hasn't rewarded people for striking, that's for sure."

The three transferred treatment plant operators are aware that labor laws will be of dubious help in their quest to get their old jobs back. Even union members who are fired wait three, five, or more years for the NLRB to order their reinstatements, and by then the employer simply may not comply, or the employees have other jobs they don't want to leave.

Guzman, Leon, and Santiago know things will never be the same for them at work; if they feel regret, they don't admit to it. It's probably too late for that, anyway. If they hadn't stood up for the union, if they hadn't stood outside with the rest of the strikers, they believe, they'd still be doing the jobs they were proud of. Now they've lost pride in their work and a lot of their friends. And they don't harbor hope they can get much of that back.

"People are scared to talk to us," Santiago said recently. He started at Aljoma eight years ago at the age of nineteen. "We had influence; we were leaders. Now they think the same thing will happen to them if they associate with us."

During Thanksgiving week Santiago was offered a job closer to his home in Fort Lauderdale, with benefits and at the same pay. He couldn't pass it up. "Some guys are saying he hurt the cause," says Leon, "he didn't stand firm. But I'm not going to criticize him. He had to look out for his better interests. We're hurting here. You wear out."

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