Just Work: Unjust End

09/28/2007 12:30 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On September 12, Elirose Pierre-Louis died of a heart attack at the age of 56. Eli was not only my friend, she was also the best co-worker I ever had. Her obituary might read:

Elirose Pierre-Louis, who came to the US from Haiti in 1985, worked as a seasonal field-hand and as a janitor in southern Florida. She is survived by her four sons in Haiti and in Canada.

This may not sound like anything significant. It seems that these days, there are a lot of untimely deaths we could talk about. But Eli died from an illness that could have been managed and from a working situation that should have been avoided. In my community, we know Eli died because she was poor.

I met Eli more than 20 years ago while packing tomatoes in a warehouse in Florida City. It was the kind of back-breaking, minimum-wage work that nearly every Haitian immigrant in Florida has done. It's a life of flat wages and irregular hours. Sickness means a bad day at work or facing unemployment, which rolls around at the end of the season anyway.

Eli played by all the rules: she was always on time, always positive, and always the hardest worker on the line. We jokingly called Eli "the Champion" because she kept our spirits up and always volunteered to help out a fellow worker who was sick or out of money. She talked about her sons often: one excelled in math; one volunteered at his church in Port-au-Prince, one was on his way to college, one had found a job in Canada.

Like many of our friends, Eli suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure, but she was always pushing off her own treatment for another day. It's hard to get the care one needs without health insurance, and Eli was always more concerned for her kids' welfare than her own. She was ready to sacrifice today for a better life tomorrow.

The thing is that tomorrow never came for Eli.

Three years ago, we both found steady janitorial jobs working the 6:00 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. shift at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, FL. It was still a minimum wage job without health insurance, but Eli and I were getting older and our work options were narrowing. After years of grueling work at poverty pay, we decided it was time to stand up for ourselves. That's when Eli and I started organizing with other workers to form a union.

We had our victory moment: we won the right to unite. But just as we saw opportunity knocking, the door slammed in our faces. Along with more than 100 other activist janitors, Eli and I were fired this past February from our jobs at Nova. It turns out the University would rather lose their entire staff than let us get a tiny piece of the American dream.

The rest of Eli's story gets more tragic. Unable to find other work in Miami and desperate for a job, Eli took a job tip I got from a friend in Nassawadox, Virginia, who was looking for extra farm hands. Given her health and age, Eli knew that this job would be hard, but she didn't have any other choices. She has family to support, tuitions to pay, and no one else to rely on.

On the morning of September 12, Eli became ill. Her boss on the farm called 911 for an ambulance to immediately transport her to the hospital--but Eli never made it. Thousands of miles from her family in Haiti and in Canada, hundreds of miles away from her community here in Miami, Eli died in that ambulance--alone and without a chance to say goodbye.

Eli's story is many of our stories. It is the story of a low-wage worker in America, the story of worker discrimination, the story of what happens to the uninsured when we get sick. Basically, Eli died because she was a poor, middle-aged immigrant. She died because she was living in a country that will take our work, but will turn its back on our most basic human needs.

Today, I am haunted by Eli's death. I think about how it could have been me in those tomato fields that day. I am a 66 year old Haitian man, I am a U.S. citizen, and I have spent nearly 30 years working in this country. Like Eli, I have great hope in my heart that sacrificing today will bring a greater tomorrow, but also like Eli, I have limited options.

One thing keeps me going: I'm going to do everything I can to prevent Eli's tragedy from happening to anyone else. Eli may have led an invisible life, but her death must serve as a visible reminder that we must improve the lives of low-wage workers in this country. If you work hard and provide a needed service, you deserve job security and access to health care. If employers like Nova Southeastern aren't going to provide this out of common human decency, then we must raise our voices and tell our stories.

If I could write Eli's obituary, this is what it would say:

Elirose Pierre-Louis came to the US from Haiti in 1985 to build a better future for her family. She died because, while she worked hard, she could not afford medical care. She will be missed by her 4 sons, as well as thousands of workers like her and Americans of good conscience who dedicate their lives to standing up for poor workers and fighting for the end of the rich man's disease of heartlessness and greed. She did not die in vain.

Elirose Pierre-Louis will be laid to rest at a funeral service this Saturday, September 29 at 12:00 p.m. at Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church in Miami. Donations to cover funeral and related costs are being accepted through the Elirose Funeral Fund.

Joseph Louis was with Elirose Pierre-Louis when they both were fired from their janitorial jobs at Nova Southeastern University after courageously organizing to improve their wages and gain access to health care. Seven months later, Joseph is still unemployed despite his active search for work in the Miami area. In his struggle to ensure that Elirose Pierre-Louis did not die in vain, Joseph continues to speak out against Nova Southeastern University's abusive treatment of its lowest-paid workers and demand justice for all low-wage workers in America.

Just Work is a series presented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to give a voice to working people to discuss their daily struggles to balance work, afford life and participate in a more just society. SEIU welcomes submissions to Just Work! Please send your story (800 words or less) to

About SEIU: The 1.9 million-member SEIU is the fastest-growing union in North America. SEIU members are winning better wages, health care, and more secure jobs for our communities, while uniting their strength with their counterparts around the world to help ensure that workers, not just corporations and CEOs, benefit from today's global economy.