City Council Calls for Pro-Labor University President

Cambridge politicians say Summers' successor should respect workers' rights

At Cambridge City Hall last night, more than 30 residents showed up to urge the city to amend a zoning ordinance, and a resolution was passed unanimously expressing concern about the labor practices of Harvard’s janitorial contractor.

Councillor Marjorie C. Decker introduced a resolution to censure the Unicco Services Company, which provides janitorial services to more than a dozen Cambridge businesses, including Harvard.

[The resolution calls for Harvard, in selecting its next president, "to consider candidates' record of support for living wages, workplace health and safety, and workers' right to organize." Read the full text of the resolution here.]

Decker returned yesterday morning from Miami, where she met with Unicco employees at the University of Miami, who have been on strike for the past seven weeks. Some of the workers have been on a hunger strike for 17 days, Decker said.

She told councillors about a woman employed by Unicco at UMiami who injured herself on the job. According to Decker, when the woman went to her supervisor to report the injury, she was told that, if she filed an injury form to receive medical care, she would be fired. The woman needed her job, Decker said, so she refused medical help.

Donna Shalala, president of UMiami and former secretary of health and human services under President Clinton, was mentioned by name in the resolution. Shalala’s name was also floated in February Boston Globe column speculating on possible successors to outgoing University President Lawrence H. Summers.

“She has the opportunity to fire Unicco, or strongly encourage them to respect their workers and the law,” Decker said at the meeting.

Dan Nicolai, director of the higher education division of SEIU Local 615, the union that organizes Harvard’s Unicco workers, spoke in support of Decker’s resolution.

“Unicco has a history of unfair and sometimes illegal practices that harm workers,” Nicolai said. Three Unicco employees have died on the job over the past five years, he said, attributing this to the company’s disrespect for workplace safety.

Unicco says that SEIU is “leveling exaggerated, false, and inflammatory accusations against the company.”

“Unicco has never engaged in any anti-union activities or done anything to intentionally harm, disrespect, or humiliate its employees,” the company said in a statement last month. The company also said it has never been found in violation of federal or state laws while operating at UMiami.

Though Decker’s resolution was passed immediately, another petition, which received significant public support at the meeting, was defeated in a close vote.

The petition, signed by over 700 Cambridge residents, urged the city to reduce the zoning of Marino’s Restaurant at 2465 Mass. Ave. The restaurant is “spot-zoned” as an A2 business zone, while all the neighboring plots of land are in a B3 business zone.

This means that the plot of Marino’s Restaurant is worth over $1 million more to developers than if it was part of a B3 zone.

Developers want to build a six-story apartment building on the site that would be forbidden in the surrounding zone.

Nearly 30 residents of the North Cambridge neighborhood that surrounds Marino’s Restaurant came to encourage the council to reduce the zoning of the site.

Anna Fererra, a retired employee of the Cambridge Public Schools who has lived in the neighborhood all her life, described the effects of development on the area’s character.

“I feel like I’m living in a prison,” she said. “I go out to Mass Ave. and it’s cold. It’s not warm anymore.”

Joshua Friedman, a real estate attorney and resident, claimed that the zoning anomaly is the result of a clerical error made decades ago. He said that he was generally wary of citizen groups opposing development, but felt compelled to join this petition.

“I’m usually on the side of the developers, but this is a matter of basic fairness and consistency,” he said.

However, the petition was defeated in a roll-call vote with five councillors in favor, one absent, and three opposed. A supermajority of seven votes was required to pass the resolution.

Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves ’74, who voted against the petition, suggested that the matter be referred to the zoning board to determine the legality of spot-zoning.

—Staff writer Virginia A. Fisher can be reached at vafisher@fas.harvard.edu.