Workers Protest At Univ. of Miami

UNICCO employees demand adjustments in labor practices

Janitors at the University of Miami (UM) in Florida have been striking for a week, demanding a change in the labor practices of UNICCO, a facilities maintenance company that both UM and Harvard employ.

The strikers are demanding that the university pressure the company, which contracts laborers, to adopt a living wage and allow workers to unionize without fear of reprisal.

Over 100 workers are already striking and nearly 100 medical school workers are set to walk out later this week, according to Eric J. Brakken, the organizing director for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 11, a subset of the union that represents the Miami area.

Labor unrest at the university began in 2001, when the Chronicle of Higher Education released a survey ranking the university’s labor conditions 194th out of 195 colleges. The survey led the university’s president, Donna E. Shalala, to create an ad hoc Senate committee to examine the issue of a living wage.

However, according to UM Law School labor professor R. Michael Fischl, Shalala has not done enough to address labor conditions at the school.

“No one I know was happy with that response, but we were told it was a first step,” he said. “But it’s been the last step.”

Though the strikers and SEIU do not have specific monetary demands, they are “calling for the university to adopt a policy that it’s only going to hire responsible contractors who obey the law and pay a living wage,” Brakken said.

Local community members, including various clergymen, faculty members, and students, have supported the strike, with over 500 of them marching with the workers last Friday.

Support among various campus constituencies is mixed.

UM junior Liza J. Alwes, who is a member of the student labor group Students Towards a New Democracy, said the janitors’ wages—which she said vary between $6.40 and $7.00 an hour and do not include health or pension benefits—are unacceptable.

Although many students commiserate with the janitors’ plight, many do not believe striking is a good plan.

“I think it’s an idiotic idea,” UM junior Jeremy R. Blechman said. “It’s so easy to replace them in the workforce,” that a protracted strike will not pose a serious threat to the university, he added.

While student support tends to be split, the overwhelming majority of the faculty support the strike, according to Fischl.

“You don’t find any support for the university position here [among professors],” he said. “It’s really difficult to find anyone who does.”

While some students have displayed their support by joining the picket line, some professors have moved their classes off campus to either local houses of worship or to the Grenada Green, a large field on campus, as a sign of solidarity with the workers. Faculty members have also created a blog providing updates on the strike.

Strikers and labor activists are using recent victories at Harvard as a “talking point,” Brakken said.

Though Student Labor Action Movement leader Adaner Usmani ’08 said that since Harvard’s workers belong to the SEIU and Miami’s workers do not, the schools’ situations are not analogous. He called the worker-student collaboration “heartening.”

“Harvard is an example that things can change,” Brakken said, “that the people can win.”

—Staff writer Benjamin L. Weintraub can be reached at bweintr@fas.harvard.edu.