Monday, April 10, 2006

In their own words...

The following report was prepared by Jeanette Smith of the South Florida Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice:

I spoke with Victoria [Carbajal], a hunger striker, early yesterday afternoon as caring people had been asking me questions about the hunger strike and needed to understand more clearly why the workers would take such drastic steps to ensure their immediate unionization. It's a difficult concept for many people to grasp and even though I understand many of the feelings from having worked with immigrants and other low wage workers for so many years, I felt that the workers own words would be far more eloquent than trying to explain myself.

Victoria spoke about how much they have already suffered, that so many of them already have poor health for lack of health care, and that talking simply didn't work. She said that this is the result and that "We're human beings and we need to be treated as humans." She asked, "Why won't they treat us like at the airport? Why don't we matter?" She said that they've been treated like slaves for long enough. She also doesn't believe that the health insurance that is going to be offered is feasible as there is so much that they will have to pay after the insurance that they simply don't have with their low salaries. She spoke about concerns with chemicals that they use in their work and that when they ask for gloves and such, they're rarely given (until the union conversations began). She says that if the union enters, "We will have respect." She is certain that if they do not have the card check which would allow them to immediately unionize (the NLRB elections would not be held until all of the charges against Unicco are resolved and election results can take years to implement), they will all be gone "one by one within three months" and that they "won't have anything." She sadly commented that she doesn't think that the university or Unicco will care until a dead body is carried away.

The common theme when speaking to any of the workers is that they simply didn't see an option to the hunger strike. They constantly state that they were not seen, that they were slaves, and that they tried to talk but it didn't work. What I don't think that many people realize is that this situation has been going on for five years; it's simply received more notice and more awareness by the larger community in the last nine months.

As Feliciano [Hernandez] states, the hunger striking workers have come to believe not only that this is their only option but also that the situation is much larger than simply the University of Miami -- that the community as a whole needs to understand the plight of the low-wage worker.

Reinaldo Hernandez, who is determined to stay until the end, expresses appreciation to those that have supported the workers, and says that "we are here on a hunger strike because they wouldn't hear our voices ... they continued to ignore us ... those that look down upon us tried to give us a cookie ... our signature is our vote ... and we remain united, Cubans, Central & South Americans ..."

Another worker states in a letter to Donna Shalala that "we are all united ... we'll stay until the end and will sound the trumpet when there is a true triumph ... with the greatest care we will stay until the final battle ... our expression is very precise. We have the list of yellow cards and with a determined voice, we shout with all emotion that we want our union and we will always want it." These words become all the more eloquent when you realize that most of these workers are sleeping with Bibles under their pillows.

A comment from a University of Miami professor [Giovanna Pompele] might also help to explain why a hunger strike -- why such a seemingly extreme step: "It's about having a voice, dignity, freedom, democracy, and not being treated, in the words of hunger striker Feliciano Hernandez, like 'beasts of burden.' People who've been working two or three jobs for twenty years; who went to English classes between one job and the next and couldn't keep their eyes open so they still don't speak English; who can't afford to get sick because that would mean mean losing EVERYTHING; who, in spite of having so much LIFE behind them, are still treated like dispensible peons... these people may, at some point, just say 'enough!'"

Another comment: "One of the workers on hunger strike spent 9 years in prison in Cuba for speaking out against the government; another spent 15 years in Cuban prison for the same reasons. They came to Miami seeking their most fundamental of freedoms (and contrary to what Shalala says, it's freedom of speech they are seeking, not tainted secret ballot elections; they already had those in Cuba). But they and other workers say that what they have found from UNICCO at UM is intimidation as bad as what they had ever experienced before anywhere."

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