marleine-bastien_web.jpgNORTH MIAMI — The South Florida branch of a union for workers in the hospitality, gaming, food service and other tourism relatef industries recently announced a new initiative aimed at addressing the concerns of Haitian-Americans.

UNITE HERE Local 355 announced the new initiative during a “Rising Up For Haiti’’ membership and community meeting at Shalom Community Church in North Miami on May 11.

Inspired by the catastrophic magnitude-7 earthquake that ravaged Haiti on Jan. 12, Local 355 leaders decided to support Haiti in any way they can.

Of the union’s total membership of over 4,500, more than 1,000 are Haitian, according to UNITE HERE’s spokesman Jay Mehta. 

After surveying 250 of their Haitian members, union leaders said they found that their chief concerns were obtaining livable wages and immigration reform.

“The survey shows us that the best way to express our solidarity is to…continue to fight,” said UNITE HERE Local 355 organizer Romane Petit Joseph, referring to the union’s original purpose, which includes working toward quality jobs, workers’ rights, immigration reform and living wages.

Leonne Jean, a steward at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, said she hopes that  her wages will increase. She said she makes $1,200 a month, and remits between $200 and $300 every two weeks back to Haiti to support over 16 family members there. She lives with her four children and her husband in Hollywood. 

Other union members said they also see a link between American wages and Haitian relations.

“The salary that you make is not enough to help the family in Haiti and the people here,” said Margarette Rifin, a food service worker for LSG Sky Chefs, an airline catering company, for 20 years.

Rifin said the economic downturn forced her company to reduce her wages in 2005. Now, she is able to send only $150 to her people on the island — about $200 less than she was able to send before her pay cut, to support 15 people there, she said.

“If I have more salary, I can help my people,” she said.

The May 11 event drew local clergymen, activists and government officials to show their support for the initiative. Among them were Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado; Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami (FANM); and Father Reginald Jean-Marie of Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church in Miami.

While Local 355 will continue to accept support from organizations and the community at large for the new initiative in the upcoming months, one of its first actions will be to formally request that Broward County commissioners implement a “worker retention policy” to ensure that concession workers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport do not lose their jobs, even as their employers’ contracts are being evaluated, Mehta said.

Photo by Khary Bruyning. Marleine Bastien