United They Fall

The effort to unionize Kitchens of the Oceans drove the company out of town and Haitian employees into unemployment lines

Last summer an untried labor activist named Ocean Dessoi saw his first union victory deflate into defeat in the time a fax machine spits out a single page.

The scene of Dessoi's dizzying free fall was a drab hotel conference-room in Deerfield Beach where he and nine colleagues had been waiting for the president of the company to show up and start to negotiate their first-ever union contract.

One minute Dessoi was savoring the anticipation of sitting across the table from his boss of eleven years; the next he was listening as his guide in the negotiations, professional labor-organizer Mark Pitt, explained that a fax had just come in. It was from company president Brad Margus, Pitt said, and it contained "some bad news."

At first Dessoi wasn't overly concerned. Whatever the news, it couldn't be that bad, he thought. Six months earlier, he and his fellow workers had voted overwhelmingly to unionize their Deerfield Beach shrimp-processing plant called Kitchens of the Oceans. Although the company had tried to appeal the election to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), it had been thrown out. Come what may, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) had arrived. Dessoi's very presence in the room confirmed it.

For eleven years the wiry, bespectacled 61-year-old Haitian immigrant had spent his workdays hauling, preparing, breading, and boiling shrimp by the truckload for, at most, a buck an hour over minimum wage. Now here he was in his best clothes getting ready to take Margus on face to face. "To sit in the same room and be treated as an equal -- for me, this was the greatest honor," he says now through a translator. (Dessoi speaks only the most rudimentary English.)

In any case he expected that Margus' fax contained merely the news of another postponement. Margus had done that before -- called at the last minute to cancel a scheduled meeting -- and Dessoi was starting to suspect that Margus was having a hard time digesting the unionization of his immigrant work force and their increased power. As before, the meeting would have to be rescheduled. But that was nothing to worry about. Margus couldn't keep running from the union forever. Or so Dessoi thought.

As he was soon to learn, the union leader was wrong. Although Pitt struggled to explain the true import of the one-page fax -- he recalls feeling disjointed from shock at the time -- it gradually became clear to Dessoi and everyone in the room that Margus just might have found a way to run from the union after all.

As Margus explained in his fax, he had decided to move his shrimp-processing plant -- along with the 220 jobs that went with it -- some 300 miles north to Jacksonville. In light of this decision, he suggested that the current negotiations might be tabled.

The news hit the conference room like a bomb. "We were surprised," Dessoi recalls. "We were very shocked." Pitt immediately found himself in the crossfire of a barrage of angry questions. The Haitians in the room -- none conversant with the finer points of American labor law -- simply couldn't understand how such a thing might happen.

Hadn't they been told time and again to report to the union if anyone in management ever threatened them with retaliation for their organizing work? Hadn't they been told these sorts of threats were clearly illegal? Now here was the president of the company casually faxing over the news that he was going to move the jobs 300 miles north.

How, they wanted to know, could it be illegal for a company to threaten to move to avoid a union but at the same time legal for a company to go right ahead and carry out the threat?

Pitt tried to come up with an answer that would cool the rage in the room. But he was flustered to begin with, and, anyway, such an answer didn't exist.

"I felt like a fool, you know?" he remembers. "They all thought I was crazy. I mean, the more you try to explain something like that, the more you sound like an idiot. The fact is, the law's outrageous. And when you try to explain all the various possibilities, you keep coming back to the possibility that yes, they could get away."

Ten months later Dessoi has yet to sit down with Margus and negotiate a contract for Kitchens of the Oceans workers. His proposal for an across-the-board, $1.50-per-hour raise is dead and forgotten. What's worse, now it looks as though he and his coworkers won't be getting any paychecks at all by the end of summer.

The company has closed on its $500,000 purchase of a larger and better-situated plant in Jacksonville. Margus says the required 60-day advance layoff notices should be going out to the union members sometime this month.

At that point everyone will be out of work except the 40 or so office workers who will continue to work at the company's headquarters, which will remain in South Florida to keep the sales staff closer to the South Florida ports.

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