United They Fall, Part Two

When workers went with the union, Kitchens of the Oceans left town. Now the Haitian workers say the union has also abandoned them.

"Yo vle antere nou."
The voice is tired, the face lined, forlorn. The speaker, a rail-thin, middle-aged Haitian man, leans forward in his chair, raises both hands in front of his face, throws them down. His story is over. There is nothing left to say.

Except this, again: "Yo vle antere nou."
They want to bury us.
Immediately the refrain is taken up, the room is filled with a dozen angry Creole voices: "Yo vle antere nou! Antere nou!"

Tonight's anger is understandable; these six men and seven women are veterans of one of the worst union defeats in South Florida memory. All had served on the negotiating committee of the local representing the workers of Kitchens of the Oceans (KOTO), a Deerfield Beach shrimp-processing company. Last September, barely a year after the local's formation, KOTO closed its processing operations, throwing almost 200 union members out of work. Many of those workers -- most of whom are middle-aged or elderly women with few job skills -- remain jobless.

Though understandable, the anger is also very unusual. Its target is not KOTO owner Brad Margus but Monica Russo, an organizing director of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!).

In the aftermath of defeat, the former UNITE! activists believe themselves forgotten by the union that had once promised to help them fight to the end. "We once looked at [the union] as a guiding light," says the man with the tired face, whose name is Benjamin Fan Fan. "But now we think they are doing the work of the company. Now we think they want to bury us."

When Russo hears these words repeated over the phone, she breaks down in tears. "I was in the hospital," she says, gasping for breath. "I had just given birth.... It was the happiest day of my life... when I got the call... that they were closing Kitchens of the Oceans. I cried so hard.... We did everything we could for those workers."

Perhaps so, but the now-jobless workers are not impressed by tears. "That's not the first time we've seen Monica cry," says Herzulie Tiresias, a 54-year-old mother of seven. "Monica always cries." Instead of tears Tiresias wants the union to follow through with its promise to provide vigorous legal counsel to its former members -- Tiresias included -- with pending discrimination complaints against the company.

The union originally filed 13 EEOC complaints on behalf of KOTO workers. Of those, eight cases are now closed: Five were settled for amounts ranging from $8000 to $10,000, while three were rejected by the EEOC. The five open cases remaining are a main source of frustration among the former workers.

Tiresias' complaint, for example, alleges that she had been sexually harassed by a KOTO supervisor who promised desirable shifts in return for sexual favors. On January 11 the EEOC found that "the evidence indicates that Charging Party [Tiresias] and other Haitian females were subjected to hostile work environment and were sexually harassed." According to EEOC procedures, the January 11 finding should have triggered a phase known as "conciliation," in which Tiresias and the company would attempt to negotiate a settlement.

But the process bogged down because Libby Navarrete, the union-supplied attorney handling Tiresias' case, didn't contact her client. It was not until six weeks later that Navarrete was finally informed of her own client's address and telephone number. That information came not from the union but from EEOC Senior Investigator Jacqueline Gabriel, who also wrote, in the same February 19 letter, that Navarrete needed to submit a decision regarding an offer not later than Friday, February 26, and failure to do so would constitute a failure of conciliation.

That deadline was not met. Tiresias, finally informed by letter of the offer on the table, responded by bypassing Navarrete and writing directly to EEOC District Director Federico Costales: "The only information that has been provided to me has been the limited offer of $1000." (Navarrete was sent a copy of this letter.) On March 1, 1999, three days after the original EEOC deadline, Tiresias finally received a written copy of the company's proposal -- not from Navarrete but directly from Gabriel of the EEOC.

Tiresias was lucky; the EEOC agreed to extend her deadline, thus allowing negotiations to continue. But the experience left her so distrustful of her union-supplied counsel that she says she approached other lawyers to look into her case, without success.

Navarrete claims she had trouble locating Tiresias because she had moved. "I didn't know anything about this until I saw this letter (from Tiresias to Gabriel, dated February 26), which surprised the hell out of me. Why didn't she call me?" Tiresias says she never moved; she's lived in the same Pompano Beach apartment for more than two years.

Although KOTO relocated the business in September, the battle to stop it from moving wasn't officially over until December 22, when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) shot down the union's last appeal. After that the only remaining subject of negotiations was severance pay for the laid-off workers.

On January 5 Russo sent each member of the negotiating committee the following letter: "Kitchens of the Oceans has mailed the Union their final settlement offer. This offer is only good through January 16, 1999, after that the company will withdraw the offer.... The Union will hold a special meeting on Saturday, January 16, 1999, at 2 p.m. at the Union Office in Miami to VOTE ON THE COMPANY'S OFFER."

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