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March 01, 2006

University of Miami janitors stike

Janitors at the University of Miami walked off the job late Tuesday night. They are striking for healthcare and a living wage.

CORAL GABLES -- For four years, Zoila Mursuli toiled in the shadows, scrubbing toilets, sweeping floors and emptying trash on the graveyard shift at the University of Miami.

Her job came with no health benefits and paid just $6.70 an hour, which ranks among the lowest wages for university janitors in the nation. Then last week, she was fired after talking to the Orlando Sentinel about her efforts to organize a strike among her fellow UM maintenance workers. Late Tuesday, her efforts paid off: Her night-shift co-workers walked off their jobs in an escalating strike about alleged unfair labor practices. [Orlando Sentinel]

According to the Sentinel, the University of Miami, one of Florida's wealthiest private universities, is one of the stingest towards its lowest-paid employees.

At the top, it's a whole different story. UM president, Donna Shalala draws a $500,000 salary. The ultiimate irony is that she earned her lucrative academic post in part through her record of advocacy for the poor:

[...] Donna Shalala, who was President Clinton's secretary for Health and Human Services, has spent much of her public career as an advocate for the poor. When she left the administration in 2001, she lamented her failure to ensure every worker in America had affordable health coverage. [OS]

To add insult to injury, Shalala recently flaunted her lavish lifestyle in a New York Times magazine puff piece:

Two weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine printed an interview with Shalala, who was photographed amid the splendor of her 9,000-square-foot presidential residence, where she lives with her dog, Sweetie.

In the interview, Shalala describes, among other things: ''Her perfect day'' (which begins with someone giving the university a $10 million donation and ends with her playing three sets of tennis), ''What she drives'' (a Lexus hybrid SUV), ''Favorite vacation spot'' (the kingdom of Bhutan) ''Her best recent purchase'' (a 1790 French country cabinet) and ''Possession that best defines her'' (a personal drawing by Susan Kapilow).

Speaking of janitor strikes, I've been meaning to link to this article by David Moberg for some time, it's about abandoning NLRB elections in favor of employer neutrality and card checks. I'm very interested in the tactical shift from fighting inside the shop to get the votes to force an employer to recognize the union vs. fighting in the community to pressure employers to remain neutral and allow employees who wish to form unions to do so. Employees may have to give more concessions upfront in order to secure neutrality. However, my understanding is that the final legal status union is the same whether it forms by majority vote under a neutral employer or whether it comes about as the result of a contested NLRB election. So, given that unionization drives are dramatically more productive under a neutral/card check model, greater unionization rates may offset initial concessions.

Are there any labour lawyers out there who would like to explain the details? I'm also curious about the precise legal status of the striking UM workers. The aforementioned Sentinel article is a little vague about the details of the janitors' union status.

Last month, the National Labor Relations Board accused the company of interrogating workers about and threatening reprisals for their union support; forcing them to sign a statement disavowing the union; and calling workers disloyal for attending union functions. A trial is pending.

UNICCO spokesman Doug Bailey, noting the company has 150 union contracts nationwide, denied the allegations. He chalked them up to union rabble-rousing, but SEIU officials insist the reprisals continue. [OS]

Click here to to contact UNNICO, the firm that employs the UM maintenance workers and janitors at other universities nationwide, including Harvard (where janitors now make $13-14/hr and recieve health insurance).

Some other blogs commenting on the strike: Health Care Renewal, Wonkette, and Bark Bark Woof Woof.


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Is this a trend among Clinton installed buddies?

summers has just been kicked out of Harvard

"However, my understanding is that the final legal status union is the same whether it forms by majority vote under a neutral employer or whether it comes about as the result of a contested NLRB election."


"I'm also curious about the precise legal status of the striking UM workers. The aforementioned Sentinel article is a little vague about the details of the janitors' union status."

SEIU is trying to organize the workers. Under federal labor law, they have the right to strike even though they're not currently unionized and work without a collective bargaining agreement.

It's a little more complicated than just the janitors going on strike against the university. Technically they're going on strike against the contractor that the University of Miami hired to handle the janitorial duties, so they're not striking against UM per se. But the apperances stink and no matter who they work for, they're still grossly underpaid and deprived of benefits at one of the wealthiest private schools in the country, located in one of the most expensive ZIP codes in the country. An average single family home costs over $250,000. (I know; I live there and I'm in the market.) They need to wake up and stop treating the workers like it was 1971, when I was a student there.

If you want to help out the janitors, the campaign is asking you to give Donna's office a call and ask her to require that UNICCO workers who clean the University’s campus get paid a decent wage -- U Miami can certainly afford it. Call her at (305)284-5155

There's never been a model of successful union organizing that worked without community support. My grandma was a textile worker in the Garmet district of New York City back in the 40s, 50s and 60s and she tells me back then the public's support of unions was absolute. It was nothing like it later became (or is now). Back then, if a picket formed outside a building, no one went in the building. Few people were willing to argue against the legitimacy of the unions, and there was general agreement that they were good for the economy (since the economy needed additional consumption to avoid recessions, and the unions were winning for workers the ability to enagage in additional consumption). And this deference of the public toward the unions made it easier for the unions to win their demands.

We can talk about the tactics that any particular union might follow, or that any particular strike might follow, and it's an interesting conversation, but the long term health of unions is this country depends on the public's friendliness toward unions.

I was slightly involved in the early 90s in the effort to help the janitors at UNC (in Chapel Hill, North Carolina) organize so as to gain better wages. My friend Chris Bauhmann stuck with the campaign for the whole of the 90s. They had some success following the community model - trying to get all the black churches to support them, trying to get all kinds of civic groups interested in their support. I know the group Chris is with detests the NLRB and avoids contested NLRB elections.

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