Nova Southeastern Ruling: Workers Don't Necessarily Feel Labor's Victory

​Last week, the Pulp reported on a recent federal ruling that slammed Nova Southeastern University for illegal union busting. 

While the National Labor Relation Board's Aug. 26 decision -- stemming from a four-year legal battle between the private college and the Service Employees International Union's South Florida locals -- is a triumph for area labor advocates, it might not mean too much for the some 100 workers who were left jobless because of their union activity.

Problems began for Nova's physical plant staff in August 2006.

Then, a group of former custodial workers for Unicco -- the janitorial firm contracted by Nova at the time -- was harassed by college higher-ups when they tried to organize. 

Steve McGonigle, a former painting supervisor, got flak for passing out union pamphlets in his off time. And when Jose Sanchez asked Tony Todaro, Nova's director of physical plant, about re-employment, he was asked whether he could get paid for picketing and was "sarcastically" told to check back in a few months, according to court documents. 

Despite Unicco's virtually perfect service record, Nova dropped the company shortly after union activity began, hiring another janitorial services company instead of renewing Unicco's contract. The new firm re-hired many of the Unicco workers who had no affiliation to the SEIU. Many of the SEIU-related workers were not rehired, because of their union activity

As part of the National Labor Relation Board's decision, Nova must now post fliers around the campus, informing workers of their right to organize. 

But nothing in that decision mandates that the workers get re-hired or get back pay. 

The Pulp had a chance to catch up with McGonigle, who was a main player in the labor battle. Throughout the coming weeks, the Pulp will continue to reach out to workers involved in this case, as many are still said to be jobless. 

McGonigle, as has been widely reported, had no reason to take up the fight for worker's rights at Nova -- and would actually stand to lose money by doing so. (If the union did form on campus, he'd actually have to spend a good chunk of his salary on dues.) 

McGonigle made a lot of money as a supervisor, and had health insurance through his wife's job. He had a nice life -- a $17 an hour job, two houses and a truck, as Michael Mayo first reported in 2009. 

But he didn't think that workers should be barred from drinking out of water fountains or forced to eat lunch outside, under the hot sun, instead of within air conditioned buildings. He told the Pulp that he wanted Nova to let workers go to the campus clinic at a discounted rate -- since they weren't receiving health insurance.

"I felt that Nova could have done the right thing," he told the Pulp. "But they fought us tooth and nail." 

That kind of idealism ultimately led to McGonigle's joblessness and bankruptcy. McGonigle was hired by SEIU as an organizer, but was laid off when the economy took a tailspin. 

He says that he's dismayed: He never got a call from the union letting him know about the ruling, and only learned about it, in fact, from reading about it online last week. 

"I know it's not the union's job to support us financially. I'm not looking for anything materialistic, but how about being humanitarian and saying: 'Hey, how are you doing?'"

McGonigle still tries to keep in contact with some of the displaced workers. He says that some have questioned whether they should have gotten involved in organization efforts. 

"Both myself and a lot of people suffered because of this," he said.

Eugenio Villasante, of SEIU Local 32 BJ, maintains that the union has done a lot for those affected by the 2006 events.

"The union has stood by these workers in their long and continuing fight by providing legal assistance and organizing a job fair where about a quarter of the workers found new jobs. In addition, with the help of a local church, the union raised more than $100,000 in assistance to workers." 

Also, he says, the SEIU is providing legal assistance on another Nova case, involving those formerly employed by another contractor. 

In this case, the labor board ruled in favor of the workers, saying their jobs had to be reinstated with back pay and that their right to organize be recognized. Their employer has appealed the ruling, according to Villasante. 

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Victoria Bekiempis