Posted on Sun, May. 13, 2007
Fantasy Island is anything but for its workers
''Live as the Vanderbilts did, only better.'' That's the motto of Fisher Island, the reality-free zone off the coast of whose marketing describes it as a ``residential community of unrivaled luxury and splendor.''
Fisher Island floats in a world of its own. Rich, inaccessible and exclusive, it has just become the perfect fantasy island of opportunity for union organizers.
SEIU, the union that helped secure healthcare and higher wages forjanitors last year, has taken up the cause of the workers who keep Fisher Island splendorous.
A week ago, the union helped organize a protest near the ferry terminal off the MacArthur Causeway. And Friday, SEIU filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of a worker who says he was fired for his union support.
OUT OF A JOB
The worker, Jose Rojas had been a busser at the Café Porto Cervo since 2000, he told me Friday. He made $6 an hour plus tips, and though he could pay the $63 bi-weekly insurance, many of his colleagues could not afford to include their children on the plan.
So he took part in the protest outside the terminal May 4.
''I knew it was going to be a problem,'' he said. ''But I thought if I had the chance to get better benefits, I had the right to try.'' When he got to work later that afternoon, a supervisor began to make disparaging remarks, he says.
''He told me I looked like a delinquent and that 'unions are for blacks,''' Rojas said. ``I told him, you can disagree with unions, but there's no need to say that.''
Wednesday, Rojas says he was fired for ''disrespecting'' his superior.
Café management declined comment Friday. Café Porto Cervo, like most of Fisher Island, is off limits to the uninitiated. The Fisher Island website says the café was ''inspired by a superb restaurant in, .'' A friend tried to make reservations for us Friday night, only to be told it was for members only.
Friday afternoon, I drove to the terminal, hoping to get onto the island to interview Fisher Island Club general manager John Iannotti. I waited in my car while a ferry docked and workers graciously sprayed the disembarking Mercedes and BMWs with water. My car could have benefited from a similar baptism. Alas, I was turned around before I could board the ferry, told that Iannotti was too busy to see me.
His secretary forwarded a statement: ``Even though a charge has been filed, we feel it has no merit and we will vigorously defend it. No further comment.''
Fisher Island, with its cartoonish wealth, may seem too easy a target. But it's a powerful metaphor for a society where the rich grow more comfortable, the poor sink further and the elected do nothing. For proof, see the property tax hysteria, where legislators sought to appease voters by hiking the sales tax -- the one tax that disproportionally affects the poor.
SEIU has made unprecedented gains across the south by emphasizing the ballooning disparity between rich and poor. Union organizers have succeeded not by duping ''unsophisticated'' workers, but because those workers know they are being duped by a system that promises opportunity and delivers only deeper inequality.
''This is the richest country in the world,'' said Rabbi Rebecca Lillian at a gathering Friday. ``Why do we even have a category called the working poor?''
Unions may not be the solution everyone wants. But its leaders are addressing issues that few others have the courage to touch.