Professor joins workers, protests Unicco
Camped underneath the night sky, the roaring Metrorail sped by above their heads. Linda Belgrave, 63, was on a mission. She was sleeping at an encampment beneath the University Metrorail station that had sprung up to protest the working conditions and pay of Unicco workers, the company hired by the University of Miami to provide grounds workers, cleaning staff and janitors, and their right to unionize.
Belgrave, a University of Miami sociology professor since 1990 and self-described activist, saw first hand the anguish of these workers. She saw how their hunger strike sent many, already in poor health, to the hospital, she said, she saw why they were fighting.
“I just think that workers’ rights are so fundamental,” she said. “Well obviously, who gets sick and dies young? The poor. Why is that happening? Why are our people, the people who are taking care of us on this very lovely campus in a private university, which is very expensive, and they can’t feed their kids? That has to be remedied.”
Despite her passion and commitment to activism, Belgrave had to learn its importance through a difficult lesson, she said.
She originally attended Case Western Reserve University in 1968 and studied Mechanical Engineering for two years. She then took a break from school and had a child. When she went to look for work that someone with two years of engineering school should have been qualified for, she was repeatedly turned down.
It wasn’t until a man at the employment agency explained to her that companies do not hire women for those types of positions. That, Belgrave says, is when the lightbulb went off.
“It was the 70s,” she said. “At that point I was pretty oblivious to social issues, so when I took my Intro to Sociology course when I went back to school, I was like, oh yeah, this makes sense, now I understand. So that’s how I fell in love with sociology.”
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, she eventually went on to get her master’s degree and Ph.D. at Case Western Reserve University, even though she never planned on it. It was her love of methodology that compelled her, she said.
“Being a methodologist lets you play in different areas. Sometimes I’m like a kid in a candy store with research,” she said.
Her primary interest in research and methodology has led her to study a variety of topics, from Drag Queens to medical sociology, health and illness and aging.
She is fascinated by the overlap between aging and health— how people think of illness as being so devastating, and yet, when she has met elderly people with illnesses, she is amazed by their strength and how they keep on going. Belgrave compared chronic illness to other chronic problems like poverty.
“Chronic problems are chronic problems, it doesn’t seem to go away. Poverty is there, being a member of a minority group, being discriminated against is there. I mean those are all types of chronic issues that people have to deal with,” she said.
While studying for her master’s degree, Belgrave taught research methods to graduate students, and although she enjoyed it, she said she longed to teach undergraduate students because sociology is something new for almost everyone who attends an introduction to sociology class.
“All these social systems and structures that look so set in concrete are man-made and that means, people can change them. But you have to understand that and people don’t because it’ll seem so solid. So sociology opens a crack. I like to bring my students to that understanding.”
One of Belgrave’s favorite examples to show her students the power people have to make a change is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, whose members she has brought in as speakers for her classes.
Several years ago, these farm workers in Florida, who are mostly immigrants, mostly undocumented and the majority speak only Spanish, were subjected to brutal beatings and unfair wages, said Belgrave.
After a particularly brutal beating of a young man, the workers decided it was time to get organized. When they saw they could not get the growers to pay them more, they went after the companies that bought the food.
These companies included fast-food giants such as Taco Bell and McDonalds, and as students heard about what these agriculture workers were doing, they boycotted those restaurants, and eventually the companies agreed to pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes the workers were asking.
“These migrant farm workers with very little education, very precarious legal standing, no English for a lot of them, beat McDonalds. So, when my students say things can’t change- if these guys can do it, sweetheart, you can do it,” Belgrave said. “But, they didn’t do it alone, they did it together. An individual is not going to change the country, most likely, but people together, that’s how we make changes.”
It is important for Belgrave to use real-world examples in class, such as this, to relate to her students. Junior Catalina Paez, a sociology major, agreed, and said Belgrave’s passion shows in her vast amount of knowledge on the subject.
“She was talking about the fact that she used to work at a grocery store, and I used to work at a grocery store and it had to do with some social structure, but it’s just interesting how it got related in class,” Paez said.
Belgrave has long been an activist, with her first protest one against Nixon becoming president. She has had a lengthy involvement in the “peace movement,” a group of organizations that work together, including those she is personally involved with like Miami For Peace and Justice and Code Pink Women For Peace Miami.
Her office is littered with peace signs, buttons from the 60s decrying the draft for the Vietnam War and photos of her with Unicco Workers. She even has the word “peace” tattooed on her wrist in Japanese, with a tattoo symbolizing unity and harmony.
Yearly she stands at demonstrations in front of U.S. Southern Command, located in Doral, to demand the closing of the Guantanamo prison camp. She protests the current war in Afghanistan and demonstrates her opposition to School of the Americas; a school run by the U.S. Army that trains the elite military from Latin American armies to oppress their own people, Belgrave said.
When she heard of the struggle of the Unicco workers happening in her own university, there was no doubt in her mind what she should do.
“It seemed like an obvious place that faculty needed to be- on the right side,” she said. “Because it’s not them or us, we’re all part of the same thing. What hurts one hurts all, what helps one helps all. And even though it’s not our immediate struggle, because professors aren’t living in immediate poverty, we’re all together. We’re all human beings. I just don’t see how we could ignore them. To me, that makes no sense. It’s just that to me we’re inherently connected and we have a responsibility to each other.”
From then on, she started going to the Unicco events, and though she speaks only English and many of the workers speak Spanish or Creole, that did nothing to dampen her spirit.
“It was kind of funny because if they call a rally and you show up, you actually don’t have to be able to talk,” she said. “There’s a kind of connection that’s made.”
And so that is how Belgrave found herself camped out under the Metrorail for two nights at a camp she had been visiting for weeks. She also supported students who were involved when they occupied the Ashe Building in protest, by rallying outside in support.
Throughout the protests, Belgrave was not concerned about the university’s reaction to her involvement, she said, because she is tenured. However, she did express concern on behalf of those who were not tenured and still participated, such as instructors and junior faculty.
When Belgrave speaks of the victory, her eyes shine with tears, smiling as she recalled the big rally held to announce the news that the Unicco workers had won.
“The biggest things they wanted, of course their own right to bargain on their own behalf, that’s necessary. They wanted respect because on campus the Unicco workers are janitors and grounds people and people walk right by them and don’t even see them- like they’re invisible, like they’re non persons. And so one of the biggest things that they did was they got people to recognize them,” she said.
But she said being part of the protest helped her more than she helped the workers.
“Because UM is the largest private employer in the county, what they did helped every worker in this county, so I actually didn’t feel like I helped them,” she said. “I felt grateful to them because it was such an important struggle.”
Belgrave also beamed when talking about the student organization, Students Toward a New Democracy (STAND), and its involvement in the Unicco workers’ movement.
“STAND was involved and it was wonderful; it’s how it should be on a campus,” she said. “Once again if you’re a student at the University of Miami, you’re part of this community and if part of your community is hurting, and that can be changed, why would you not be part of helping to change that?”
Belgrave said she hopes to see this activism spread through the students. She talked about how students often watch the news and see all the bad going on in the world and all the suffering that people endure and they feel almost helpless.
However, she said the way to fight those feelings is to be part of making a difference.
“It’s your future, you have to be involved,” she said. “It’s your world; do you want to live in a good world or a bad world? It doesn’t change by itself, people have to change it.”