Irony is rather rich at this $100-a-plate award luncheon
Sun Sentinel, March 11, 2007
Last month, his university helped put 108 low-paid janitors, drivers and maintenance people out of work. On Friday, Nova Southeastern University President Ray Ferrero Jr. accepted an award from the local chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice.
The luncheon was $100 a plate, but it included all the irony you could eat.
According to the organization's national Web site, its role is to "advocate, educate and resolve conflict -- relative to issues of discrimination and oppression."
"Giving him an award just doesn't make sense," said the Rev. Roger Holoubek, a priest at St. Maurice Catholic Church in Dania Beach. "It's a contradiction."
Holoubek was among a group of clergy and community activists who bought a $1,000 table at the Signature Grand in Davie to witness this spectacle. When Ferrero came onto the stage to accept the Leonard L. Farber Corporate Leadership Award on behalf of the university, the group staged a silent protest.
They got up from their rear table, marched single file in front of the stage, then turned and exited the ballroom. University security guards and police monitored the group. Many in the crowd gave puzzled looks as applause quickly stopped.
"It made people notice," said the Rev. Bob Tywoniak, of St. George Catholic Church in Fort Lauderdale. "A lot of the public still doesn't know what's going on. But now President Ferrero knows we're not kidding. We're still here, we're on the high road, and we're not going away."
Outside the banquet hall, a group of about 30 protesters held up mops, brooms and signs that read, "Union busting is wrong" and "Ray Ferrero is the one who should be fired." The protesters included 15 former employees of UNICCO, the contractor that was replaced by a consortium of smaller local firms last month.
Nearly a third of the 330 UNICCO employees lost their jobs in the transition. Workers were given the chance to re-apply for their jobs before the switch. Coincidentally, the ones who didn't get rehired seemed to be those most active in a successful union drive last year.
"I'm here because I want my job back," said Norcia Gabrielle, a cleaner at NSU for 11 years. She called it "a shame" that Ferrero was honored. "He did nothing for us. He doesn't care about us. The union came in through UNICCO, and then he threw UNICCO out."
Ferrero has tried to distance the university from the labor situation, but it's very much his mess. The new contractors are required to pay better and offer health benefits, but until they hire all the old workers and recognize the previously formed union, Ferrero's going to have trouble.
Now that politicians have started talking about cutting grants and other public money to the private university, he'll have to pay attention.
His students have been mostly quiet, and his scared faculty won't protest because nearly all work on contracts and don't get tenure.
"Everybody there is on a short leash," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who worked at NSU for 10 years and is dismayed by the university's actions and Ferrero's attitude. "We have to apply pressure in other ways."
Wasserman Schultz is still smarting from a meeting she had with Ferrero last fall. She went with state Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, and Broward Commissioner Kristin Jacobs to get the university's side and urge fair treatment of the workers. She said Ferrero treated her with "callous disregard."
In an interview last month, Ferrero told me, "I'm comfortable with what we've done." After he picked up the award on Friday, he said, "I'm not going to discuss or get involved with anything that [the protesters] did today."
And what about the funding threats from the politicians? "I think they're just misinformed," he said.
"Misinformed?" Wasserman Schultz said later. "That's the kind of patronizing attitude we encountered in our meeting. He's going to get a healthy dose of what a misinformed politician can do."
Welcome to your worst public relations nightmare, Nova Southeastern.
Michael Mayo can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4508.