United They Fall, Part Two

"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."

Eight days later Ocean Dessoi, the chair of the negotiating committee, wrote back, "To date we have not received the company's final offer. We do not know what it says or what is in it.... To ask us to vote the same day we see the proposal does not give us adequate time to discuss it amongst ourselves and to think it over."

Today Russo says she had already sent the committee a written copy of the company's final proposal. Her written reply to Dessoi at the time, however, seems to indicate that the offer had at best been described to him verbally. "Dear Ocean," she wrote. "The company's offer is THE SAME OFFER that Mark Pitt and I spoke to you about several months ago at Miami Subs."

The January 16 meeting was, by all accounts, a disaster -- a melee of shouted accusations and recriminations that ended with the negotiating committee spurning the company's offer and storming out of UNITE headquarters. "Oh, it was wild," says Mark Richard, a veteran labor lawyer who assisted with the KOTO campaign. "I've never seen anything quite like it. It was the most, um, what's the word, the most surprising response -- to turn down thousands of dollars (in severance pay), simply because they were offended by the company's treatment."

Dessoi says the company's severance offer -- two weeks' pay for workers with one to five years' tenure; four weeks' pay for workers with five years' tenure or more -- was insultingly small. "Once you take out the deductions, there wouldn't be enough left to buy a soda," he says with contempt. Most KOTO workers -- even those who had worked for the company for ten years or more -- were still making minimum wage when the plant closed.

But Richard says there was nothing more the union could do by that point. "It's absolutely unfair to question UNITE's human and legal commitment to these workers," he says. "Kitchens of the Oceans was a very important campaign, and UNITE! put as many resources into it as I've ever seen in more than 20 years as a labor lawyer."

Meanwhile Russo wavers between sympathy for the displaced workers and resentment of their targeting of the union for public accusations. "I understand their frustration," she says. "But you show me another organization that will take on a fight on behalf of the lowest-paid, most disrespected workers in Florida. This fight cost us millions of dollars, and we lost. But we did everything we could." The Haitian workers, she believes, have been the victim of "union-busters" who have been "whispering in their ears."

Ironically it is this charge that especially angers Dessoi. It angers him precisely because it exemplifies a pattern of thought he finds revolting -- one in which poor, Creole-speaking Haitians are viewed as mere pawns to be moved in a game they don't understand and shouldn't question.

"We are not animals," says Elizabeth Eugene, an elderly woman whose fingers are misshapen from an 11-year career processing shrimp. "We have many responsibilities. We are people."

Contact Paul Belden at his e-mail address: [email protected]

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Paul Belden