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Workers say voodoo signs swayed union election

Workers at a nursing home testified Monday that they felt threatened by voodoo signs they saw before a union election that lawyers for the facility say should be nullified.

Employees of Mount Sinai-St. Francis Nursing and Rehabilitation Center said they saw lines of pennies, half-empty cups of water and a pro-union employee twisting black beads in her hands before a Feb. 28 election won by the union.

"If there was a group of people afraid of voodoo, your mind could be swayed," Barbra White Bynum, an employee at the Miami Shores nursing home, said at a National Labor Relations Board hearing.

Lawyers for the nursing home, which has a large Haitian-American work force, contend that workers were spooked into voting for the union. Union officials say the claim is frivolous.

The vote was 49-37 to unionize, after a campaign in which pro-union workers cited low wages, unaffordable health insurance and mistreatment from management.

Lawyers for the nursing home presented several workers who described a pervading atmosphere of fear of voodoo.

Lula Torina McClain-Barrett, a dietary aide, said she was worried after finding half-filled cups of water placed on cabinets and rows of three pennies in drawers.

She said she was warned by others who knew about voodoo not to touch the pennies _ they could be evil. "I left them alone," McClain-Barrett said.

She said the fear did not prevent her from voting against the union, however.

Bynum, a dietary aid, said a co-worker warned her of bad consequences if workers failed to approve the union. "She said . . . if the Haitians don't vote the union in, something bad is going to happen to them."

Avernell Merle Simmons, a cook and dietary aide, said on election day she saw a pro-union worker carrying a set of black beads. She said believers in voodoo pray over black beads.

Bush calls for mentors

to help improve reading

WEST PALM BEACH _ Gov. Jeb Bush called on teens and adults to mentor children to help reach a goal of having all Florida students able to read at grade level in the next decade.

The mentoring is part of the "Just Read, Florida!" initiative the governor announced last month. Bush said then that Florida needs to train all kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers in the latest research on reading.

"We need to create a culture of nurturing readers in our communities," Bush said Monday at the Salvation Army Northwest Community Center. "My hope and prayer is that we'll have 200,000 adults who spend time with 200,000 kids."

Forty-seven percent of the state's elementary students can't read at grade level, Bush said. In middle school it's 57 percent and in high school, 62 percent.

Through the new Teen Trendsetters, the state Department of Education will train 30 high school students this summer to start elementary school tutoring programs in their areas.

Americorps will try to expand its mentoring in Florida by 50 percent, signing up 500 more volunteers to tutor 3,000 elementary school students, bringing the total to 9,000 students.

The governor and other well-known Floridians will participate in a statewide Phone Line Story Time program, reading to children over the phone. And several companies will run free promotions of the reading initiative.

College fund president

nominated for FAMU post

TALLAHASSEE _ As Florida A&M University's search committee began interviewing 11 presidential applicants on Monday, two possible last-minute candidates surfaced _ one a heavyweight among historically black colleges.

William Gray III, president of the United Negro College Fund since 1991, has been nominated for the post and has been sent a letter asking whether he's interested, said Bill Jennings, chairman of FAMU's search committee.

Gray did not wish to comment Monday, a spokesman said.

The president of the oldest and most successful black higher education organization has strong ties to FAMU. His father, William H. Gray, is a past FAMU president.

The second candidate, Charles Kidd Sr., is president of York College of the City University of New York. He's a former administrator at FAMU for almost 20 years.

In a letter dated March 20, state Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, asked that Gray be considered.

"Some FAMU alumni . . . called my office and said they wanted to have William Gray considered," Miller said Monday.

Group that tries to change

gays now Orlando-based

ORLANDO _ The headquarters of a Christian ministry that tries to turn gays away from homosexuality now calls Florida home.

Exodus International-North America moved its headquarters from Seattle to the Orlando suburb of Winter Park this month.

Alan Chambers, the ministry's executive director, said the move had nothing to do with a number of gay rights battles brewing in Florida _ recently headlined by talk show host Rosie O'Donnell's campaign to repeal a Florida law banning gays from adopting children _ and the ministry won't play an active role in any of them.

Chambers, an Orlando area resident, was named to his position this year and wanted to work near his home. Ministry officials also thought the cost of living would be cheaper in Orlando, and ministries are tax-exempt in Florida.

Exodus is a nonprofit, interdenominational Christian organization promoting the message of "freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ," according to its Web site. It has more than 100 chapters in the United States and Canada.

11-year-old girl in hospital

after shark bites her foot

COCOA BEACH _ A shark bit an 11-year-old tourist Monday as she waded in shallow water on an Atlantic beach, officials said.

"She had a serious injury to her (left) foot, but it was not life-threatening," said Cocoa Beach fire Capt. Rod Donhoff.

Tori Lawrence, of Sterling, Ill., was standing in knee-deep water when she screamed and began to crawl to the beach, witnesses said.

She was taken by helicopter to Orlando Regional Medical Center's pediatric trauma unit, where she was listed in fair condition.

Cocaine worth millions

found hidden on freighter

MIAMI BEACH _ U.S. Customs agents Monday seized $8.8-million worth of cocaine hidden inside cargo containers on a freighter from Haiti.

The illegal cargo _ 1,051 pounds of it _ was concealed behind false walls in two empty refrigerator containers on the freighter Linaki, which arrived Sunday, Customs officials said.

Customs agents were interviewing the Linaki's crew.

_ Wire reports