SEIU organizers boat, swim to class-warfare protest

For over a year the Service Employees International Union has been trying to organize the 360 housekeepers, groundskeepers and security guards of Fisher Island (FL), a private community so exclusive you can only get to it by yacht, helicopter or private ferry.

The Fisher Island Community Association (FICA), responsible for maintaining the island's common areas, ferries and island security, argues its employees -- who earn an average of $13.81 an hour -- don't want or need a union, and has fought to keep the SEIU out.

The fight has involved arresting protesters off the MacArthur Causeway, until recently the closest they could get; an incident aired on YouTube.com about a stolen SEIU banner; and the Ferarri driver who allegedly called a ferry operator a peasant.

But on Saturday afternoon came the invasion.

Nine vessels took off from Jimbo's, the bar on Virginia Key, and steered as close to the island as the law permits. Thirty swimmers swam to shore, unfurled their protest banners and started a racket.

Chants of Justice Now! and ¡Si, se puede! echoed off the $5 million condominiums as they never had before. Airhorns exploded, megaphones blurted.

SEIU lawyers had found a way onto the island. Turns out the beach in the most exclusive community in South Florida, composed of sugar-white sand imported from the Bahamas, is public.

Not only that: the covenant developers made with the county years ago seems to guarantee public right of way on a pathway leading from the ferry landing to the beach.

"It feels good to be back," said Wisly Jonatas, a security guard who says he was fired earlier this month for violating island policy on the ferry -- walking through the residents' parked cars to get to the employee cabin, an action forbidden because of the danger to the cars' paint jobs.

"They're nice cars," said Jonatas, who now works at the Port of Miami. "Mercedes, Bentleys. But I was tired."

Yellow plastic tape lined the beach, behind which stood dozens of security guards, Miami-Dade police and residents, some with cameras, some in golf carts designed to look like Bentleys. There were few smiles and no words exchanged.

When the swimmers walked down the beach toward the public access path, security guards kept pace. More waited at the path, which turned out was not much of a path at all: more yellow tape had been laid down on walkways and on the side of Fisher Island Drive, too narrow for two people to walk comfortably.

It did, per the law, extend to the ferry landing. Almost. The tape ended outside the security office. This created a bottleneck of sandy-footed chanting protesters. More residents in fancy golf carts showed up, including one woman wearing a three-quarter length fur coat and a fur hat. She drove a cart painted in tongues of flame, that looked like a dragster.

Mark James, FICA president, emerged from the security office and after discussion allowed the protesters to continue to the ferry landing. The path should have, after all, extended to the ferry terminal area -- James grudgingly admitted as much in a recent letter to the union, which you can read online at MiamiHerald.com -- but there would be no ferry ride back to land. The protesters turned around, walked back out to the beach and swam out to the boats that had brought them. Nobody was arrested.

It seems the covenant provided for a public access path, but no actual access; the path is a path to nowhere.

"That's correct," said Jose Cancela, a public relations man recently hired by FICA, later that afternoon.

Cancela didn't feel much had been accomplished. A publicity-hungry union had chosen a fat target, the richest community in the United States, populated by people who are sensitive, if not to the cause of social justice, then at least to the cause of their own quality of life and their privacy; but they'd only mustered 30 protesters, some flown in and some high school students.

"It's obvious that the employees are very happy," he said. "They were fully guaranteed every right [to protest] and they chose not to."

This was almost true. Housekeeper Marette Casseus came to see the boats off but didn't swim, because she injured her knee in an accident at work in the summer. She'd been making $8.50 at the time. "Nobody ever called me, even one day, to ask me, 'Marette, how do you feel? How are you?' They proved to me they don't care."


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