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United They Fall

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.

Meanwhile the once cohesive and defiant cadre of amateur organizers whom Dessoi thought he had led to victory is coming apart. Dessoi admits that "some people do blame the union" for their imminent loss of employment.

It's not that they think the union's too radical, he says. Rather, their bitterness springs from the frustration of having to watch as the company busily prepares to move while the union can do nothing but sit and wait for the NLRB to complete its investigation into the union's complaint that the move constitutes an unfair labor practice.

The state of limbo has lasted since last fall, when the regional office of the NLRB first began its investigation, and there's no sign that it will end anytime soon. When one level makes a ruling, that ruling can be appealed to the higher level, all the way up to the five-member board in Washington, D.C. Labor lawyers talk of cases hanging fire before the NLRB for years -- even decades.

Every day that passes, support among the workers drips away. Over the last month alone, three scheduled street protests and one meeting of worker activists were canceled at the last minute. Was it due to lack of interest? UNITE's Angel Dominguez claims other union-related emergencies came up at the last minute.

The sole protest to come off as planned lasted an hour and drew only 30 workers. Considering that 173 workers originally voted for the union and the protest occurred on a Friday at quitting time a block away from the plant, the attendance could be called sparse.

"I know it wasn't big," admits Monica Russo, UNITE executive director, who took part in the protest while holding a Haitian baby on one hip. "But it was very emotional for me. I look in the faces of these people, and I see a conviction that no matter what, even if we go down, we're going to go down fighting."

In late March, at a meeting held at the UNITE headquarters in North Miami, those same words -- "If we go down, we're going to go down fighting!" -- sparked a shouting match in Creole that could be heard two offices away.

Some workers, at least, aren't keen on going down fighting. Ludovic Laferriere, for instance, was once so pro-union that Margus fired him days before the election for "threatening others with violence." Laferriere's photograph is prominently displayed on an information packet that the union hands out to reporters.

Although the union helped Laferriere win an appeal of the firing, today UNITE merits only his scorn. When a recent visitor to Laferriere's Pompano Beach duplex asks how he feels about the union, he at first issues platitudes. Later, however, away from the union-employed translator, his attitude changes. The union, he says, is "No good! No good!" In broken English he snorts, "They do protests -- no one comes! They do nothing! No good!"

"I'd say about 40 percent of the workers just don't care any more," says Stacey Cunningham, who used to work in the peeling plant and now has an office job.

Some of the workers, in fact, "think the union should come in and help find them other jobs," according to Benjamin FanFan, another worker-activist at Kitchens of the Oceans.

But this will be a problem, says UNITE activist Winnie Cantave. For one thing, helping the workers find other jobs at this point would be admitting defeat on the larger issue of whether the company can legally move at all. And the union is not prepared to concede this point.

Plus, for many Kitchens of the Oceans line workers, finding new jobs would be "difficult, very difficult," she says. The simple fact is that ten years' worth of experience working with shrimp is not conducive to finding new jobs. For many this is the first and only job they have held since immigrating to the United States.

"Most of them are limited," she says. "We have to be very honest about this. Those who are young can probably receive some training and find new jobs. Some may be eligible for a program here or a program there. Some can receive social security." But many more will be out on the street with no job skills other than the ability to peel shrimp.

Russo struggles to find something positive to say about the whole fiasco, but the only thing she can come up with is the hope that the laid-off workers will take their organizing experience into whatever new jobs they find. Of course, whether they will find new jobs is an open question. In the end Russo realizes this.

"There have been many martyrs in the labor movement over the years," she says. "To me, the Kitchens workers are martyrs of the labor movement in South Florida."

Creating a corps of martyrs to the labor movement was the last thing that UNITE had in mind when organizer Angel Dominguez first showed up at Kitchens of the Oceans. Since the 250,000-member union first established a presence in South Florida two years ago, it has built a reputation as one of the fastest-growing, most energetic unions in South Florida.

With only four paid organizers on staff (a force that's well supplemented by the extensive use of volunteers), Dominguez's industrial division targets the sorts of operations that typically employ low-paid Haitian or Cuban immigrants. In two years this strategy has been rewarded with union contracts at eighteen nursing homes and nine garment factories.

Not that the union hasn't endured its share of defeats along the way. A year ago, for example, it lost a vote at the Villa Maria nursing home, a home owned by Catholic Health Services, which is affiliated with Catholic Charities. In that instance, some say that the union's perceived radicalism hurt its efforts -- especially among Cuban staffers.

"Some of the UNITE workers sometimes seem a little too in-your-face," says Bishop Tom Wenski, director of Catholic Charities in Miami. "They've got that 1960s-style, barracks-of-the-revolution attitude, and it scares some people. I remember when they were trying to organize a couple hotels, and the union was looking for a neutral place to meet with people. I offered them my church, but basically nobody showed up, because they were afraid of losing their jobs."

Monica Russo, executive director of UNITE, doesn't dispute that the union is perceived as a radical organization. But she does disagree with the notion that their extremist attitude is a vice. "That's what workers want," she says. "They want a union that will fight back, fight hard, demonstrate, picket, file lawsuits."

In fact it wasn't an excess of zeal that hurt the union at Kitchens of the Oceans. The workers were already plenty radical before the union ever showed up.

To understand the roots of this organizing campaign, one has to understand the conditions they worked in. Few of the 200-plus union members have had the luxury of an education. All of them are Haitian, and 90 percent are women. Most are in late middle age. Few speak any English, and few are literate, even in their native Creole. More than 100 sign their pay stubs with an "X." They have little in common with the managers and the sales reps who work in the main office about 50 yards away from the processing plant.

For a line worker, the typical workday is a mind-numbing stretch of peeling, preparing, or breading shrimp as it flows along a never-ending conveyor belt, says Tim Christopher, a white quality-control inspector who is not a member of the union although even he makes only $7 an hour. The women are required to meet a specific quota of shrimp per workday no matter how long it takes. Speaking on a recent weekday as a file of women dressed in blue smocks, hair nets, and rubber boots, makes its way slowly toward the plant's front gate, he says, "These women were supposed to be off at 3:30, but look at them; it's 6 p.m., and they're just getting done now." (The women are paid for every hour they're punched in, and they do get overtime for working more than 40 hours per week.)

For such a hard job, the pay is small. Whether they are peeling, prepping, breading, or inspecting shrimp, line workers at Kitchens of the Oceans are mostly paid straight minimum wage. There are no merit raises and no paid holidays.

Valerie St. Fleur, a matronly woman in her sixties, has worked for the company for eleven years. When she started, she made $3.50 an hour; now she makes $5.50. Three fingers of Mary Louissaint's left hand -- the middle, ring, and pinky -- are bent, blackened, and misshapen from a decade spent handling shrimp and machinery.

Ironically, however, it wasn't their own conditions that drove the workers to stop work in protest on a summer's day in 1996, the day the organizing campaign began. It was to protest the firing of a woman who didn't work in the plant and who never had. A woman named Winnie Cantave.

Today she is a full-time employee for UNITE. Eleven years ago, however, Cantave was a new administrative assistant for Kitchens of the Oceans plant manager Marty Patterson. She eventually worked her way up within the company to the job of personnel assistant.

In July 1996 she had just returned from three weeks' vacation to learn she'd been fired. By midmorning more than 100 of the company's line workers had gathered near the arrangement of picnic tables that served as an outdoor break area. But they weren't there to rest or eat. They were there to get some answers.

Minutes before, the news that Winnie Cantave had been fired had swept through the plant at the time the workers were taking their fifteen-minute morning break. The rumor spread that a white person was going to get her job.

"We talked among ourselves and said we're not coming back to work," Virginie Pierre recalls. When Patterson came out to ask them what was up, Pierre stepped up and asked him why they'd fired Cantave. She told him that they wanted her back. He replied that he didn't know anything about it, and they said they wouldn't start working until he found out. So he went back inside, and they waited in the break area.

When Patterson returned several minutes later, Pierre says, he offered her a raise if she would get the workers to go back to work. "He said he could promise me that." She flatly refused. Then Patterson (who refused to be interviewed for this article) came back and told her that Cantave had been fired for "poor performance" at work. Cantave thinks her firing may, in fact, have had something to do with her divided loyalties. While her job was to represent management, she always kept a lookout for opportunities to help the workers at the company's expense.

One time, for instance, Cantave was responsible for training a new personnel assistant. Although Cantave doesn't remember the exact figures, she says the company at the time required plant workers to contribute to their health plans one-and-a-half times as much as it required of the office workers. But the new assistant didn't know this.

"He came to me and said, 'Look at this discrepancy. What is this for?' I told him it was probably a mistake. So he went and changed it. I did it on purpose."

By the time the human resources manager had figured out what had happened, the word was out among the plant workers that they'd been getting screwed for years. They asked Cantave what they should do about it. "I said, 'Hey, now that you found out about it, what you have to do is make a committee and come and ask for a meeting with the personnel manager.'"

They did so and were able to pressure the human resources manager into equalizing the health insurance deductions throughout the company. As a result, Cantave says, she was "labeled" by management.

Pierre and the other workers never forgot what she had done, and their loyalty lay squarely with Cantave. Patterson "showed us many pieces of paper," Pierre remembers, "and he said Winnie was supposed to be filling out the hours that people had worked on these papers, and she had not done it. I told him, 'She just got back from vacation! How could she have done it when she was on vacation?'"

While all this had been going on, Margus had called Cantave at home to offer her another job with the company. Margus confirms this offer: "We offered her a job back in a different area of the company. She clearly didn't want her job back."

For her part Cantave says, "I smelled a rat." After she turned Margus down, she says, "he told me, 'Believe me, Winnie, you will never set foot on this company property again.'" She giggles a little when she adds, "But I was back the next day."

But it wasn't to get her old job back. As soon as she had left, she contacted an old friend with ties to Haitian activist groups in Miami. He referred her to Dominguez, and Cantave told him about the spontaneous demonstration that had occurred at Kitchens of the Oceans the previous day. He was interested. The two drove out to the plant the next day and immediately began to distribute a union petition. The campaign had formally begun.

It was a raucous fight, characterized by rallies on the street in front of the plant with noisemakers, bullhorns, and chanted slogans. Sometimes it got obscene, with the protesters calling a company manager a "fag," Cunningham recalls. And it was not without casualties. Shortly before the election, Ludovic Laferriere and Virginie Pierre were fired for alleged intimidation and violence.

In the end the union won overwhelmingly, by a vote of 173 for and only 18 against. Somewhat surprisingly for such a bitter battle, the negotiations started off smoothly, according to both sides. "I got the strong impression that they just wanted a contract," Margus says. (A typical union contract covers most aspects of the workers' interactions with management, including wages, benefits, working conditions, and grievance procedures.)

There were, of course, some bitter disputes. They couldn't come to terms on the issue of taping the negotiation meetings. Margus wanted the meetings taped; Pitt would not agree.

Then there was the issue of whether Cantave would be allowed to serve as the negotiating team's interpreter. As long as she remained, no company representative other than its outside counsel would step foot in the room, Margus decreed. At first the union was inclined to push this to the limit, Pitt says, but Cantave argued that it would be counterproductive. By this time she was a paid UNITE organizer, so she volunteered to devote her time to other projects.

With these minor issues out of the way, the negotiations proceeded fairly smoothly for a while, according to both sides. They dickered over side issues such as the constitution of a proposed joint safety committee and the precise language of a proposed nondiscrimination clause. Pitt demanded showers for the workers, more bathrooms, and ergonomic work stations. Margus complained that the cost would break him and came back with a counterproposal.

Pitt recalls that the workers "generally got caught up in atmosphere of thinking that the more you ask for, the more you're gonna get. The first thing that came into their mind was, 'Here's an opportunity to correct all the wrongs.' They calculated up all the ways they'd gotten screwed and wanted to lump it all on top of our wage proposal." In particular the workers were pushing Pitt to demand a large initial raise for all workers, one that would make up for the years they'd worked without merit raises. Pitt tried to explain that, from the company's point of view, they'd gotten two raises in two years, when Congress hiked the minimum wage in September 1996 and again in October 1997.

"I had to play in the middle of all that and explain to the workers that yeah, it shouldn't matter, but it is going to matter to the company. I had to go through the process of saying that's not necessarily the case. An outrageous proposal from the union just gets an outrageous proposal from the company at the other end, and you haven't accomplished anything. The goal is to engage in serious discussion, not to polarize."

For his part Margus says he got the impression that the union thought a contract was more important than extracting expensive concessions. Throughout the spring and summer of 1997, the negotiations continued calmly, with the two sides slowly but surely moving toward a middle ground.

Then, in late August, just as they were about to take up the central issues of wages and benefits, came Margus' fax.

Margus swears his move isn't retaliation, and any appearance to the contrary is merely the result of unfortunate timing. Still, Pitt felt betrayed. Suddenly it was clear that the whole time Margus had been negotiating with the union, he had also been secretly negotiating with the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission to get a share of city-backed industrial revenue bonds, a deal that would in essence have provided the company with a gift of lower-than-market interest rates on its construction loans.

Pitt pleaded with Margus to reconsider. "I told Margus that it was not too late for us to work together, instead of against each other. He said he would think about it, and if they reconsidered, he would call me. I never heard from him about any of this again."

The union in turn declared war. It immediately filed a complaint with the NLRB, alleging that the move constituted an unfair labor practice. It also took its protests directly to Jacksonville. Within a week of receiving the news of the company's intention, Pitt was standing before the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission expressing "concern about the company's labor practices and their alleged policy of paying minimum wage," according to the meeting's minutes. Pitt and several workers also crashed a Jacksonville city council meeting where they denounced the company. Under pressure, the Jacksonville Economic Development Corporation rescinded its bond offer last fall.

While this hurt the company, it isn't stopping the move. Still, the union is struggling to keep up the fight. The essence of the union's attempt to block the move lies with the NLRB. Although the NLRB has a reputation for being labor-friendly, in order to move forward against Kitchens of the Oceans it would have to present a firm case to a judge that the company is moving solely to evade the union. Convincing a judge to involve the courts directly in the economic decision-making of a privately held company would be an "unprecedented" long shot, say labor lawyers familiar with the case. "It would be extraordinarily unusual, almost to the point of being impossible, to think of a court involving itself in a case like this one," says Noah Warman, an attorney who specializes in labor law with Sugarman & Susskind in Miami.

The legal standard for anyone who tries to tell a company how to run its business is very high. The burden of proof in fact rests with the union. If it wants to argue that the company's move is merely an attempt to skip town, it will have to prove that argument in court.

This won't be easy. Margus presents a powerful case for having purely economic reasons for moving. He can cite a long list of specific factors that show that the new location will be less expensive for the company. Everything from the size of the new plant's freezers to the fact that it will be owned instead of rented argues for a less-expensive option for a company.

What's more, it's probably going to mean a protracted legal battle that the union can't afford to take on anyway. The path to ultimate success could be a long one. If the NLRB issues a complaint, the company has a chance to respond, and then the case goes before an administrative law judge. The judge's order can be appealed to the five-member NLRB in Washington, D.C. Then this order may be appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Finally, even if the union perseveres all the way through the process and wins, it can't collect attorney's fees or punitive damages -- only back pay for each worker laid off. If any workers have taken on new jobs, half of what they have earned is deducted from the judgment, as well as all unemployment benefits.

The remedies provided by the National Labor Relations Act are, in Warman's words, "absolutely toothless." If he were counsel to Kitchens of the Oceans, "I'd tell them to run like hell."

Somebody already told them, and they are. The move is imminent, Margus says; South Florida's loss is about to become Jacksonville's gain. That suits Isaiah Rumlin just fine. Rumlin, an ex-officio member of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission and also a board member of the local chapter of the NAACP, says the new plant will be in a depressed area of Jacksonville that could use an influx of jobs.

"You can't stop a company from relocating if they decide to," Rumlin says. "They have every right to do so." He does, however, promise to keep a close eye on Margus' operation. "If they treat their employees right, then we have no problem."

Meanwhile in South Florida, the bitterness has bred an unfocused, and at times, snappish resentment that seems to permeate the company's modest plant on five acres. When Valerie St. Fleur complains about not getting enough hours, her supervisor, a Haitian man named Amoreste Delice, who is not a member of the union, tells her to go complain to the union. Although Delice denies that specific charge, he does not shrink from speaking of those who once believed unquestioningly that the union was a sure path toward a dramatic improvement in their lives. The path toward self-sufficiency, he says, lies in "hard work" and "thinking for yourself," not in relying on a union that "doesn't understand this business." The difference between him and the union activists, he says, is that "I have my own brain."

The ill will between pro- and anti-union factions within the company has strained relationships and shattered friendships. Stacey Cunningham says it's been two years since she's spoken to a former friend and coworker -- now a union activist -- who had been a bridesmaid in her wedding. Earlier this year, at a company picnic, union members kept to one side and management kept to the other. The picnic tables were laden with food, but no one from the union filled a plate. When one worker did get up and grab a sandwich, his comrades made him put it back.

To Monica Russo all the bad blood, the ruined friendships, and lost jobs can be traced back to one source: Brad Margus. "I hope that one day the labor movement reaches a point where people like him go to jail. Because it's criminal to throw these people out of work."

Cantave thinks that Margus' motivation is revenge. "His reaction is, 'How could you dare do something like this?' His whole point is to show the workers that you don't cross that line. 'You're here in America, and you should feel happy. You should feel lucky.' It is arrogance." She also says she feels a very personal sort of malevolence directed against herself.

That, says Brad Margus, is nonsense. If Cantave thinks he's carrying a grudge against her personally, she's wrong. "Winnie's got a tendency to see ghosts when there's nothing there," he says. "As the saying goes, paranoia will destroy ya."

But a certain prickly defensiveness does creep into Margus' denials of personal animosity toward Cantave, especially when he calls her, by turns, "psychotic," "frustrating," "paranoid," "haughty," "hypocritical," and "difficult to get along with."

At other times Brad Margus can seem almost apologetic. Well into a recent rumination that he will later refer to, half-jokingly, as "my moment of catharsis," Brad Margus stumbles across the question that seems to cut him deepest.

"Am I really an evil person?" he asks himself.
He pauses for a moment, thinking perhaps of what he labels the union's uncalled-for tactic of "always making sure they had some Haitian woman holding a baby in the room" during negotiating sessions.

Then he says, "I would not be happy if my mother had no education and no English, and she needed to work, and the only job she could get was peeling shrimp. Like anyone, I would rather have my mother not have to work at all."

But he's not God, he says, and there's a limit to what he can do to improve the lot of others less fortunate. His job is to run a business and keep it floating in a marketplace that grows more turbulent as more seafood processors move their plants to South America or Eastern Asia.

"Peeling shrimp is unskilled labor, and it's never going to pay well," he says.

What's more, "There's a real need in South Florida to employ these types of people who don't have all the skills. Even today I get approached by Haitians who've heard about us and want to come work here."

So why move? Economics, he says. Pure economics. He had no choice. He can cite a whole list of factors that will enable him to save money in Jacksonville. All of them check out. Jacksonville is closer to the major markets, so distribution costs are cheaper. The new plant will have about five times the freezer storage space than the current one. The new plant will provide room to grow, whereas the current one doesn't. Owning a plant will be cheaper in the long run than renting. On and on. Everything except the fact that a nonunionized work force is inherently cheaper.

Now that the move is imminent, Ocean Dessoi is looking for another job. But he doesn't think he'll get one; he's 61 years old, after all. Wearing a faded blue shirt with his first name stenciled on one pocket and the sort of cheap dress pants you can buy in any church thrift store, he wonders what will come next. He's spent more than a decade working for the same company doing basically the same job for basically the same pay.

Knowing that the only job he's ever known in America is about to disappear over the horizon to the north, Dessoi has no misgivings or hesitations. Although others do, he doesn't blame the union. He made the decision to fight for the union, and he stands by that decision today. Although that choice will soon cost Dessoi his job, he says, "since the union, we are experiencing more respect from the company."

Winnie Cantave also has looked into her own heart to consider her motivations and assess her blame for the mess that's left. "If I had known it would become so personal between the company and myself...." She falls silent, thinking for a bit, then says only, "But the women, they didn't have to be grounded and crushed."

In the end, though, she has learned something from the whole ordeal. While it hasn't dampened her enthusiasm for organizing, "I think at the same time, we have to be realistic in what we can achieve and what the risks are."

With the end in sight, Dessoi still spends much of his free time on union work. On a recent Sunday afternoon, he is one of several union members who have gathered at Ludovic Laferriere's duplex in the Haitian section of Pompano Beach to talk about the next step. The best they can come up with is another protest.

Two weeks later, on the afternoon of Friday, May 8, a group of about 40 men and women are gathered on a street corner a block away from the processing plant. It's pretty small, but at least this time the protest isn't canceled for lack of participation.

Among the dancing and shouting protesters is UNITE organizer Angel Dominguez, who vows that the struggle is not lost. "It's a very tough situation to be in," he says. "But we are committed to these workers. We never walk away from a fight. It's going to be very expensive for us, but we are looking at the long term. We have to show that when you pick a fight with us, it's going to cost you."

But the protest doesn't make the daily newspapers, and it doesn't seem to faze Margus, who's late for an appointment on this Friday afternoon.

Before he steps into his white Blazer, he briefly gazes down the road at the small ragtag group of protesters a block away. At this distance their Creole chanting -- "Viktwa se pou nou!" ("Victory is ours!") -- is quite unintelligible.

Then, stepping into his white Blazer, Margus avoids the small gathering by driving around the block.

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