Our Conservative Union ActivistsFebruary 27, 2018
Party lines don’t stop these members from building a strong union.
In 1199SEIU, there are likely as many political opinions as there are members. While 1199SEIU’s history reflects a progressive union, the organization’s true unifying thread is not allegiance to a political party but members’ commitment to quality health care, fair wages and just working conditions.
Bill Hamilton is a stationary engineer and boiler 0perator at Oak Hill Hospital in Hernando County, just north of Tampa. He’s been an active 1199 delegate for five years.
“I consider myself a staunch Republican,” he says, “But I voted across party lines [in the last election].” As part of his Union-building work, Hamilton is participating in the Conservative Member Engagement Program, an initiative designed to ensure that members’ views of all political stripes are heard and considered.
Since the 2016 Presidential election, there’s been a lot of talk about repairing the divided country and giving voice to the struggles of working people. In Florida, members of all political persuasions are working together in setting an example of how to do this.
Florida is what’s ruefully known as a right-to-work (for less) state. Union security agreements are illegal.
All workers in an institution are equally covered by a union contract, but only those people who choose to join the union pay dues, explains Eugenio Maniero, a Plant Operations Engineer at Kendall Regional Hospital in Miami. All the costs of administering the contract—legal advice and delegates time—are borne by dues-paying members, yet everyone benefits.
Though Maniero considers himself a die-hard Republican, he doesn’t necessarily agree with his party’s policies. He’s firmly opposed to right to work laws, which are being promoted by Republican legislators across the U.S. and believes unfettered union membership is simply the right and just thing to do for working people.
“I stay in the union because of my heart. If you do something good, it comes back to you. If we had no union here, things would be worse. At least we have a voice,” adds Maniero.
“I Want to Vote for Someone Who is for the Working Man”
Many conservatives say they’re reacting to elitism and political disconnection from common people. James Streitenberger, a CNA in Behavioral Health at Trinity, grew up in a Republican family. Though not particularly interested in politics before joining 1199, Streitenberger took part in Vote Fest in New Port Richey last year, an event designed to encourage voter registration and participation.
“It was interesting to sit down with candidates in small groups and hear what they stood for,” said Streitenberger. “I want to vote for someone who is for the working man who is living paycheck to paycheck—not someone who represents the bosses living in comfort. I don’t want someone looking down on me.”
Walk A Day In Our Shoes
Republicans dominate the Florida Statehouse, so it is also important to ensure that these elected representatives are made aware of community concerns. In the aftermath of last October’s Hurricane Irma, 1199 invited Gary Farmer, the Democratic state senator for Hollywood, and Anitere Flores, the Republican State Senator for South Miami-Dade County to Jackson Plaza Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Miami. The legislators took part in a “Walk A Day In Our Shoes” event with CNAs at the facility.
Like many nursing homes in the area, Jackson Plaza was still recovering from the ravages of Hurricane Irma, which left many homes and businesses without power for weeks. 1199 members shared with both legislators their concerns about their facilities and patients and the need for clear guidelines in the event of a future hurricane.
On the other side of Florida, Brook Julius, a food and nutrition assistant at Oak Hill Hospital, explained that he joined the union because he was worried that the hospital would contract out the kitchen where he worked. “I wanted a union contract to protect my job,” he said.
His support for Union representation doesn’t mean he agrees with union initiatives across the board. Julius calls a mandatory minimum wage needless, contending that such regulations result in excessive oversight, job losses and price hikes.
Julius’ colleague Bill Hamilton voted for Donald Trump, and said he would do so again in 2020, but doesn’t agree with all Republican policies either. He thinks the Affordable Care Act should be replaced with a single-payer system, which will better protect working people. After living with his family in Germany, Hamilton saw first-hand how well the system works.
“My [now] ex-wife had a burst appendix when we were living there, and there was no waiting to get an operation to fix it,” he remembers, noting the necessity of life experience and exposure to other views as necessary in forming cogent opinions.
“We Are All Purple”
Ivianne Cartamil, a unit secretary at Kendall Regional Hospital since 2000, has been an 1199 member for a decade. She’s from a deeply conservative Cuban family, but has been an activist since Kendall Regional’s first contract was signed.
“Before the union came in, there wasn’t a good atmosphere at the work site. Management was doing whatever they wanted—firing whoever they wanted. We realized that the union would mean more protection for workers,” said Cartamil.
“I like to give people a chance,” she added, explaining why she voted for Presidents Obama and then Trump. But she won’t be voting for President Trump again because of his policies toward immigrant communities and vulgar comments about people from Haiti, El Salvador and unspecified African countries.
Though she’s no longer supportive of the Trump administration, Cartamil says the Conservative Members Engagement Program is an opportunity to build Union strength through political diversity.
“We want to give our members confidence that we will back them no matter which party they support. Members have the right to speak about their opinions, nobody will treat you differently,” she says with enthusiasm. “Just because you may be Republican, it doesn’t mean you don’t believe in the union. We are all purple, even if our views might be conservative.”