The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Miami Janitorsâ€TM Strike Escalates Despite Partial Victory

by Andrew Stelzer

Apr. 6, 2006 – More than a month after going on strike, and having won a 25 percent pay raise and health insurance, janitors at the University of Miami are still refusing to return to work. They are demanding the right to unionize on their own terms.

Yesterday, ten janitors began the early stages of a hunger strike in order to pressure the university and the contracting company.

The dispute now pivots on wages and the issue of "card check" elections, a unionization method favored by organizers but opposed by the janitors’ employer, Boston-based UNICCO Service Corporation. In order to gain union representation with a card-check election, a majority of employees need only sign a union card. But an employer has to agree to recognize a card-check election, and can instead, as in UNICCO’s case, force workers to hold a secret-ballot election instead.

About 400 janitors work at the University of Miami; roughly half of them walked off the job at the University’s Coral Gables and Medical school campuses on March 1st, with the support of hundreds of students, faculty and local clergy.

After the strike continued for more than two weeks, the University agreed to pay raises and low-cost healthcare benefits for all of the school’s 900 contract workers. Before the raise, contract workers had an hourly base pay of $6.40, the state’s minimum wage. The new hourly minimum is $8 for food-service workers, $8.55 for janitors, and $9.30 for landscapers.

After the strike continued for more than two weeks, the University agreed to pay raises and low-cost healthcare benefits for all of the school’s 900 contract workers.

Renee Asher, an organizer with SEIU Local 11, the union with which the janitors are trying to win representation, told The NewStandard the raise was significant not just because it may lift some of the workers out of poverty. "It meant for the first time that the university was engaging and admitting that they had a role to play here and they were at the table," said Asher. "But the job is only half done."

The workers are still demanding that they be allowed to organize in whichever way they see fit, and are calling for a living wage. Miami Dade County already has a living wage ordinance , which requires all county employees or contractors to be paid at least $9.81 per hour with health benefits, or $11.23 without benefits.

The janitors have been signing union cards in an effort to show that the majority want to be unionized, but UNICCO refuses to honor the "card check" as a method of ratifying a unionization vote. Instead, UNICCO wants a secret-ballot election, which will entail a lengthier, more difficult campaign for the union.

A website created by UNICCO to defend its record on unions says that approximately 45 percent of the company’s employees are presently represented by unions, and the company administers 124 collective bargaining agreements with 20 labor organizations.

"One more union office would not be foreign to us," UNICCO spokesman Doug Bailey told TNS before the strike "But we want to do it through a democratic secret-ballot process, because we think it’s the best way and the only way to really gauge the intent of our workers."

The workers are still demanding that they be allowed to organize in whichever way they see fit, and are calling for a living wage.

But janitor Clara Vargas said: "The workers are saying our signature is our vote. They need to accept a union because the workers want a union."

Often the period of time before an NLRB secret-ballot election is characterized by intense campaigning by both the union and management, and threats of job loss and retaliation by management. But a recent survey of workers by American Rights at Work found that Workers in NLRB elections were almost twice as likely as those in card-check campaigns to report that management coerced them to oppose the union.

Vargas, who has worked cleaning a dorm for the past four and a half years, earning $7 an hour, speculated that UNICCO was never open to the idea of a union at Miami University. "They always spoke badly about the union to the workers," he said.

The janitors point to the firing of Zoila Mursuli, a janitor and organizer who UNICCO fired after she let a journalist into the building where she was working. Many of Mursuli’s coworkers believe her firing was as a blatant example of UNICCO’s attempts to intimidate them, which would render the action illegal. The company insists Mursuli was fired for letting an unauthorized person into the building.

Yesterday’s hunger strike is just the latest in a series of actions to support the janitors’ position. Over the past few months, students, local clergy and hundreds of community members have held numerous demonstrations in support of the janitors. According to organizers, seven students have initiated a solidarity fast, limiting their food intake in preparation for joining the hunger strike next week.

Last month, the Haitian workers' movement Batay Ouvriye presented a letter of protest to University President Donna Shalala when she visited Haiti to give a speech about heath care. And on March 28, nineteen students occupied the university’s admissions office demanding the janitors’ demands be met.

Students, organized as a group called Students Towards a New Democracy (STAND), also are demanding that increases in workers’ wages not trigger increases in tuition, but are instead absorbed by the university. "The university’s funds are not unlimited," acknowledged STAND member Tanya Aquino. "It would be somewhat of an economic stress at first, but it’s a matter of priorities and this is thousands of families’ livelihoods on the line."

Aquino also wants the changes in wages and working conditions to be sustainable beyond the enrollment of the current crop of politically active students is at the University. "We don’t want any of the workers to be marginalized ever again," she said. "We want a committee formed that will continue to look at these issues and insure that they will be carried out."

While the strike is technically against UNICCO and the company’s alleged harassment of workers trying to organize a union, Asher with SEIU Local 11 said activists are targeting the university, pressuring it to make those changes happen.

"The university can say, categorically, we will not allow contractors on our campus who break the law," said Asher. "We will not allow contractors on our campus who don’t respect workers’ right to form a union. They absolutely have the right and the obligation to do that."

Calls to the University of Miami were not returned. The University has stated throughout the dispute that they are a neutral party in the matter, but Aquino contends that "nothing they’ve done has been neutral; its always been very one-sided including their continual call for a… [secret-ballot] process, which is not the process that the workers have chosen to organize the union."

Aquino points to the wage increase as an example of how when the university did demand changes, they were made.

"The students are getting very restless and frustrated," said Aquino, who is among the seven students preparing to hunger strike. "They know we have community support and the numbers to pull off large escalations. I think the university really does want this solved. However, they are not going about it the right way."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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This News Article originally appeared in the April 6, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Andrew Stelzer is a contributing journalist.

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