This op-ed by Elizabeth Aranda was declined by the Herald.
On March 28th I was outside of UM’s admissions office showing my support for the student sit-in aimed at bringing attention to the plight of striking janitors. I came upon a conversation between a colleague and a union organizer. The organizer was talking about missing her kids. Having not seen my own daughter all day, I chimed in to commiserate; I was embarrassed about complaining when I realized that she had not seen her three children in weeks. "These workers need me" is what she told them.
According to Michael Putney's column in yesterday's Herald, union organizers like this one are villains. In his words, they "exploit a group of hard-working, unsophisticated immigrant workers to achieve their own larger ambitions." The picture he paints of organizers is remarkably opposed to those I met over the past few months. I am surprised that Mr. Putney did not take the time to do more reporting on their backgrounds before he demonized them.
I met John on the first day of the strike. He is from Pittsburgh and witnessed how the steel mills in his home town were moved to less-developed countries to lower labor costs and increase profits. I'm guessing that John got involved in the labor movement because he witnessed first-hand the demise of the occupational infrastructure of his community. John believes that the only way to win rights for workers in this country is through a successful labor movement. If you talk to the other union organizers you'll find a deep commitment to this view and to social justice generally. The only difference between them and the rest of us is that they are willing to work for justice and not just wait for someone else to act. These individuals sacrifice their own personal lives to help workers attain basic human rights in the trenches of global capitalism.
Mr. Putney also underestimates the workers' intelligence and their role in this movement. Like many of us in South Florida know, if you are not a government official or community bigwig, you must be involved in a car-wreck or a crime to get in the news. Because of media closure, striking janitors are not a ratings grabber unless they are doing something unusual. Workers know this. The workers saw how a hunger strike on behalf of activist Saul Sanchez drew attention to the absurdity of deporting Cuban immigrants who touched dry, but unconnected land. The workers saw the media images of Sanchez walking through MIA's terminal to fly to Washington D.C. to meet with lawmakers to address this injustice. The workers saw how this action led to a change in the deportation order. From this perspective, surely ten hunger strikers fighting for justice would get similar results. To insinuate that every tactic used in this struggle was orchestrated by the union is simply erroneous. Moreover, it is insulting to all individuals who took an active part in this fight and overlooks the media's own role in stimulating an escalation in tactics.
Mr. Putney validates his argument by positioning himself as a former janitor. With all due respect, let's be clear about the differences: Mr. Putney was a young man putting himself through college; his union job helped him achieve his goals and become a prominent member of the community. The workers, however, are middle-aged women and men working to put food on the table, hoping to get their kids to college. Only now can they benefit from what Mr. Putney had access to when he was a janitor: decent wages, benefits, and proper grievance procedures that his union instituted at Berkeley. I doubt however, that the organizers that were responsible for getting Mr. Putney his benefits were portrayed as villains as they worked to pursue their agenda of increasing unionization in California.
Agendas exist at many levels-there are individual agendas and there are organizational agendas. At the end of the day, I would rather be supporting the agenda that will bring about the greater level of social justice for all individuals involved. But I guess that in today’s politically conservative climate we should not be surprise that union organizers are thought of as "manipulative, deceitful and dishonest..." while UM’s disingenuous claim to "neutrality" is chided gently as a "fiction." Sad to say, it is not just geography that separates Miami and Berkeley.