Downtown, Brickell property owners to meet next week with Carpenters Union leaders over protesters
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
The City of Miami and the Downtown Development Authority are organizing meetings between Carpenters Union leaders and downtown property owners and managers next week to discuss the ongoing protests in downtown and Brickell.
City and authority officials are hoping the talks lead to a compromise to avoid a possible lawsuit against the union.
Meetings are scheduled for Dec. 9-10 at noon in the downtown authority's 29th floor offices at Wachovia Financial Center, 200 S. Biscayne Blvd.
Since early summer, paid protesters have been picketing in favor of worker's rights on behalf of the Florida Carpenters Union Regional Council along Brickell and downtown sidewalks.
The daily-scheduled protests are disturbing residents and office workers north and south of the Miami River. The picketers are not union members but people hired to protest for five-hour shifts and are paid wages that start at $8.50 an hour.
In late July, the city commission directed City Attorney Julie Bru to take action after area tenants began contacting the city and area associations with noise complaints. Some continue to do so.
The Downtown Development Authority joined the city's efforts as their stakeholders have made similar demands. The authority assigned board member Jay Solowsky to work pro-bono and budgeted $15,000 for third-party expenses in the event the city enters into a lawsuit against the union.
Commissioners have suggested placing time, manner and place restrictions on picketers — an option to which union leaders insist they won't agree.
Terry Darling, director of business development for the Carpenters Union, said protesters are creating awareness of workers' rights and pushing for more responsible contractor language to hold general and sub-contractors responsible for employee rights.
The union works with almost 200 independent contractors and fights for fair wage and health and retirement plans for such workers, Mr. Darling wrote in an Aug. 7 e-mail to city officials. The fraud in Florida's construction industry, where workers are getting paid under-the-table, is hurting the state's tax revenues, he wrote.
Carpenters unions nationwide are organizing similar protests to promote local standard wages in cities such as Atlanta, Indianapolis, Baltimore, San Diego and Columbus, Ohio.
In an interview, Mr. Darling said that while union members are willing to meet with area business owners, building management and homeowner associations to explain their intent with the protests and listen to concerns, they are unwilling to quiet down or go away.
Silent protesting is not an option, he said. "Seen but not heard doesn't affect anybody."
Mr. Solowsky, volunteer attorney for the authority, said some tenants in targeted office towers have complained the non-stop noise of chants and whistles impede them from using conference spaces close to windows and is affecting retailers at ground level.
"They should have use of the quiet space they are paying for," he said.
But prevailing against the protesters could be tough to do. If they are not blocking streets, sidewalks or building entrances, their rights are limitless, said Howard Wasserman, law professor at Florida International University.
"To the extent it (protesting) bothers other businesses is the price we pay for living in an open society," he said.
Mr. Wasserman said time, manner and place restrictions are an option as long as they are content-neutral, but the limits would have to apply to any type of protester, labor, political, social or otherwise.
Carlene Sawyer, chair of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida Greater Miami Chapter, said the placement of time, manner and place restrictions can only be done on certain grounds. "There has to be a proven government benefit" such as security or safety issues. Otherwise, she said such restrictions can't be set.
While both the city and the authority have referred to time, manner and place limitations as an option, neither has stated specific examples. Lawyers have only hinted the restrictions would attempt to accommodate the protesters while protecting the public's rights.
Ms. Sawyer said the American Civil Liberties Union has taken on similar cases in the past. The carpenters union has a right to protest, she added.
"Cases are won and lost on basis of law and precedent," she said. "Cases like these have been won before because of constitutional protected speech."
Mr. Darling, of the carpenters union, said he has not contacted the American Civil Liberties Union for assistance.
Ms. Sawyer said the organization is usually approached for help after a case is filed.
But for now, entering into a lawsuit — a possible step if no agreement is reached — is not appealing to either side.
Both Mr. Solowsky and City Attorney Bru have said filing a lawsuit is a last resort.
The city is still in litigation for several lawsuits that came as a result of police violence toward protesters in Miami's Free Trade Area of the Americas Summit of 2003.
Warren Bittner, an attorney with the city legal department, said he could not comment on the cases, but said a handful is still in litigation and at least three were closed.
Mr. Darling, too, questions whether the city, which was forced to make significant cuts to its fiscal year '09 budget, would opt to sue.
I "could see how some of our picketers might end up in a mansion in Miami," he joked, making reference to a recently-settled case in New York City in which 52 protesters split a $2 million settlement. The Iraq war veterans were "wrongfully arrested" when protesting in front of defense contractor the Carlyle Group's headquarters in midtown, the court concluded.
"We are not going to be trampled on our rights," Mr. Darling said. "We'll fight it to the highest level of the court."