Miami commissioners look to put time, place and manner restrictions on demonstrators
By Risa Polansky
Miami commissioners may support workers' rights — but you probably won't find them honking about it.
Lately, protesters have been picketing on behalf of the Florida Carpenters Regional Council on Brickell and downtown sidewalks, erecting large banners, shaking noisemakers and waving signs at drivers asking them to "honk for worker's rights."
Commissioners say it's been a distraction to office workers and a safety hazard to pedestrians.
They agreed last week to look into imposing time, place and manner restrictions on all demonstrations, labor or otherwise.
City Attorney Julie Bru is to work in tandem with attorney and Downtown Development Authority Board member Jay Solowsky to mediate with protesters and draft the law.
"You have folks blocking the sidewalk, you have people asking that others honk their horns, they whistle, and it's becoming a huge disruption," said Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes Brickell and parts of downtown. "It's something we need to address and we need to address now."
Agreed commission and development authority Chairman Joe Sanchez, "It's causing an inconvenience not only to the working individual in downtown, but also it just sets a bad presence for those that live work and play in downtown, especially visitors. It's something that's awful."
He acknowledged that the protesters "may have a constitutional right, but where somebody's rights end, it begins for somebody else."
Mr. Solowsky assured commissioners at the meeting that "no action being taken today is in contravention of anyone's first amendment right."
But the carpenters' council is worried the potential new laws would be.
"What we're doing is perfectly legal. Is it annoying at times? Yes, it is," said Terry Darling, director of business development and special projects for the Florida Carpenters Regional Council. "We don't block driveways, we don't block commerce… we will never, ever compromise our right to be heard in a legal fashion."
But, Mr. Sarnoff said, "demonstrations are subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions, and I think it's time the City of Miami go to court and set those reasonable time, place and manner restrictions."
He lamented noise and safety complaints from area office workers.
"I think we've got to be more pro-business in the City of Miami. We've got to be more responsive to the folks who are earning and paying our taxes."
But catching people's attention is "what a labor demonstration is all about," Mr. Darling said. "We're very peaceful, but we try to be noisy."
The carpenters' council has been advocating an "area standards campaign" for at least two years, he said, trying to raise awareness of companies paying what they call unfair wages and offering unfair — or no — benefits to workers.
"This is a campaign that basically tries to protect the ability of carpenters to earn a fair wage and benefits for him and his family," he said. "In the case of most of the drywall workers, there are a large number of drywall companies who undercut the wages in an attempt to become more competitive. With the exorbitantly high cost of living in South Florida, someone has to stand up for the working carpenter and his family."
Companies hire general contractors to oversee projects, "and they assume that everything's above board. Unfortunately, that's usually not always the case," Mr. Darling said. Many drywall workers are getting paid cash and offered no benefits, meaning "those who have insurance carry the burden for those who don't."
But it's not the reason behind the protests that the commissioners have taken issue with. It's the demonstrations themselves.
The carpenters' council has noticed.
The city has sent a testing firm to monitor noise levels and film the protests, Mr. Darling said.
"The city has been spending a lot of resources, and I would say probably not prudently."
But the demonstrations have become a safety issue, Mr. Sarnoff said, especially the long signs that stretch across sidewalks.
"They force people to walk into the street."
Ensuring safe ingress and egress for pedestrians is to be a main goal, said Mr. Solowsky, the attorney and Downtown Development Authority board member.
He plans to begin by sitting down with the carpenters' council to negotiate, he told commissioners.
As long as any time, place and manner restriction the city sets is content neutral and applies to all, "it is likely it would pass constitutional muster," he added in an interview.
He also noted, as Commissioner Sanchez did at last week's meeting, that most of the protesters are not actual laborers.
Upon approaching a group of seven protesters, "not one of them was a member of the carpenters' union. They were all hired solely for the purpose of picketing, and not one of them knew why they were picketing," Mr. Solowsky said.
At the meeting, Mr. Sanchez said that the protesters are homeless people "hired by these labor organizations."
The carpenters' council does hire the picketers, Mr. Darling said — and pays them rates beginning at $8.50 an hour, as well as insurance and workers' compensation.
Some have gone on to get other jobs afterward, using the carpenters' council as a reference, he said, pointing out that more paid demonstrators could mean fewer panhandlers downtown.
"Are we employing at-risk citizens? Yeah, we are," Mr. Darling said. But "I think we've given a lot of guys an opportunity to earn an honest living."