Janitors Strike at the University of Miami to Gain Living Wage and Health Benefits

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Nearly 200 janitors working for the UNICCO Service Company are on strike at the University of Miami. The non-unionized janitors–who are mostly Haitian and Cuban immigrants — earn as little as $6.40 an hour and are not provided with health insurance. We speak with one of the janitors and host a debate between a UNICCO spokesperson and a director at the Service Employees International Union. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to Florida, where nearly 200 janitors working for the UNICCO company are on strike at the University of Miami. The non-unionized janitors–who are mostly Haitian and Cuban immigrants — earn as little as $6.40 an hour and are not provided with health insurance.

Although the janitors officially work for UNICCO, they are also calling on the University to pressure the company to provide them with a livable wage and health benefits.

In particular, striking workers have criticized University President Donna Shalala for refusing to get directly involved in the dispute. Shalala has been a longtime advocate for the poor — during the 1990s Shalala served as President Clinton’s Secretary for Health and Human Services. In 2001 she said her biggest regret was not being able to secure affordable health coverage for all Americans.

But Shalala is now being criticized for living a life of luxury while the school’s janitorial stuff is living on about $50 a day. The New York Times Magazine recently photographed Shalala inside her 9,000 square foot residence. The house is so big she says her dog has four beds. In the same article she discusses vacationing in the kingdom of Bhutan, her new 29-foot motorboat and how she has hired staff to make her bed each day.

Shalala’s lifestyle has not gone unnoticed. A recent column in the Miami Herald was titled, “While Shalala lives in luxury, janitors struggle.”

Meanwhile UNICCO has been highly critical of SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, for its union organizing efforts of the janitors. On a new website called UniversityTruth.com, the company charged that ”SEIU is most interested in bloating its ranks and reaching into the pockets of our workers for dues.”

Meanwhile UNICCO has been accused of harassing workers who have backed unionization. The Orlando Sentinel reports the National Labor Relations Board has accused the UNICCO company of interrogating workers about their union support; forcing them to sign a statement disavowing the union; and calling workers disloyal for attending union functions.

In February, one UNICCO employee, Zoila Mursuli, was fired shortly after talking to the Orlando Sentinel about her efforts to organize a strike among her fellow UM maintenance workers.

  • Clara Vargas, a janitor on strike at the University of Miami. She is a member of the Justice Leadership Council, a committee of workers elected to represent the University of Miami janitors.
  • Jill Hurst, deputy director of the Property Services division of SEIU (Service Employees International Union)
  • Doug Bailey, a UNICCO spokesperson.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: To discuss the strike, we now go to Miami, where we’re joined by Clara Vargas, a janitor who is on strike at the University of Miami. She’ll be translated by Gretchen Begley. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Clara Vargas. I’d like you to tell us a little bit about your conditions there and the strike, why you felt compelled to strike.

CLARA VARGAS: [translated] First of all, we decided to strike because we wanted respect, justice and dignity. We have been humiliated, harassed, because we wanted to strike. And people have been fired because we have been organizing to strike. My mother is a perfect example of this. She is sick with cancer. After having an operation and chemotherapy, she was unable to work for two months. When she returned to work, they put her in a position that was not her job, and she was not able to do it. She is not able to lift anything, and she needs someone to work with her to lift up the trash. She says that she is able to do her own job, but her supervisor has refused and has put her in a job that she is unable to do.

JUAN GONZALEZ: [translated] What is the importance of having health insurance, considering the situation of your mother?

CLARA VARGAS: [translated] She has gotten sick, and she is not given any explanation of why she’s not able to go back to her job, and she’s without work. And she owes over $80,000 at the hospital and doesn’t know how she is going to pay it. I think that the university and UNICCO are rich organizations, and they have the ability to give us a better future for our families.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Thank you very much for being with us, Clara.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Clara Vargas, one of the janitors at the University of Miami on strike. For a discussion about the strike, we’re joined by two other guests in Miami, as well. Jill Hurst is deputy director of the Property Services Division of the Service Employees International Union, and we’re joined by UNICCO spokesperson, Doug Bailey. Doug Bailey, let’s begin with you. We want to thank you both for being with us. Can you talk about UNICCO and why the workers don’t get healthcare?

DOUG BAILEY: Well, you know, we employ 18,000 people across the country. We have 9,000 unionized employees. Some have healthcare benefits, some don’t. I guess the simplest reason is we pay the prevailing wage — actually, we pay something above the prevailing wage in Southern California. You would find this kind of wage and benefit package in many employers across Southern California, and yet UNICCO is being targeted, singled out as the problem here — unfairly singled out as the problem here. This is the prevailing wage, and this is the condition of the market in Southern California.

AMY GOODMAN: But you’re in Miami, though.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re in Miami at the University of Miami. You’re talking about Southern California?

DOUG BAILEY: Southern Florida. I’m sorry. That is the wage rate here. You can go — you can you check with other contractors.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Mr. Bailey, what about the conclusions of the NLRB, in terms of labor violations about your company?

DOUG BAILEY: Well, this company’s worked here at University of Miami for 14 years without a single OSHA complaint, without a single NLRB complaint, and now, suddenly, with the union coming here watching us carefully, with the press here watching us carefully, with the administration watching us carefully, suddenly there’s a flurry of all these complaints, and suddenly we’ve developed an anti-union stance. It’s just hogwash.

You know, there’s two things to remember. There could not have been a legal strike without NLRB complaints. We think that was a means to an end. We’re not anti-union; as I said, more than 9,000 of our employees are already unionized, most of them in the SEIU. So, the idea that we’ve suddenly developed an anti-union stance is just hogwash.

AMY GOODMAN: Jill Hurst, of the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, your response?

JILL HURST: Well, I think it’s clear that the cleaners that worked for UNICCO at the University of Miami have a right to live a decent life and to make good wages and have health benefits. And, there may not be charges for the last 14 years, but the workers have decided that it’s time to fight for a better life, and they’re trying to do that. Unfortunately, when they began to do that, UNICCO and the University of Miami responded by intimidating people, threatening people, spying on people, trying to force people to sign statements that were blatantly illegal about not supporting the union. And so, there are unfair labor practice charges that have been investigated by the NLRB, who’s charged with that, and the federal government has said, yes, they believe that, in fact, UNICCO did that. And so, they’re pursuing those charges.

Unfortunately, it takes a very long time for the system to work, so, though the charges began with violations of the law back in September, we are hoping to have a trial now scheduled in late May. So, as this goes forward, it just means that every day things get worse for people who work for UNICCO at the University of Miami. And workers said they wanted the unfair labor practices to stop, that they wanted to be treated with respect and dignity; and, of course, they want a decent wage and health benefits. People like Clara’s mother and many of their co-workers shouldn’t have to have $80,000 in hospital debt after working full-time for many years at an institution that’s as wealthy as the University of Miami.

This is an institution with a billion dollars in endowment. They have the ability to tell UNICCO what they need to pay, and whether or not they should provide health benefits, and they have the ability to tell UNICCO to treat workers with respect and dignity as it relates to their rule — their laws under the NLRB. And that’s what the workers are fighting for.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Jill Hurst, I’d like to ask you — we did ask the University of Miami and Donna Shalala’s office if she or someone would come on to talk about the case, but they insist that this is a labor dispute between your union and UNICCO as a contractor to the university, it does not involve them — but I’d like to ask you: At Harvard University, for instance, I understand UNICCO also represents the employees at Harvard, and there the employees actually are paid considerably more and do have health insurance. Could you could talk a little bit about that?

JILL HURST: That’s correct, they do. After the workers at Harvard had reached a really low point and were making very low wages with little or no benefits working part-time, Harvard reached a point of saying that, you know, this is not their policy. That’s not how they want their janitors to live. And so, they have a policy they passed after a struggle that the students and workers lad, that says that janitors at Harvard have to be paid a living wage, they have to be provided full, affordable family health benefits and be provided all the benefits that many of us take for granted: some sick time, some vacation, things that the janitors that work for UNICCO, as well, at the University of Miami have none of.

And so, the Harvard janitors have had their lives transformed through that struggle, and UNICCO has been willing to do it because Harvard told them they had to, and any other cleaning contractor at Harvard also has to, and there are several, UNICCO is the largest. Apparently, the University of Miami has not chosen to take a similar action despite many requests. So they’ve now formed a committee after the workers were ready to vote to go on strike to end the unfair labor practices. The University of Miami now has a small committee that’s looking at wages and benefits. I fully expect they will finally try to do something about living wages and benefits as a result of the fight led by the janitors. But that still leaves them with fear, intimidation, threats, people being terminated, etc. But I do believe that the University of Miami and Donna Shalala are not going to be able to remain by the wayside at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve been reading some of the articles in the Miami Herald, which say Donna Shalala was in Haiti this past weekend to talk about healthcare for the Haitian people. She’s also the former, of course, Secretary of Health and Human Services. And, Doug Bailey, I was wondering if you agree with the University of Miami that this doesn’t have anything to do with them, that this is purely between you and the janitors — your company, UNICCO?

DOUG BAILEY: You know, Donna Shalala has [inaudible] the market conditions, to study the wage and compensation benefits for all workers — all contract workers, not just UNICCO workers, all of it. And she is going to come out with a report. And she is going to come out with a recommendation that’s going to affect all workers, not just UNICCO workers; and that’s a good thing. Now, you’re hearing what the union is saying already. They’re already changing their stance. They realize that this wage and — package is coming, and these benefits are coming. They could declare victory and go home. We’d be very happy with that; but they’re not. Now they’re changing the dialogue to these NLRB complaints, these trumped up charges, because that’s going to be the focal point of their campaign going forward. They’re not going to be happy with these wage package and benefit increases, because they won’t be able to get into the pockets of these workers and get a percentage of it, and that’s what’s going to happen from now on.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But, Mr. Bailey, if you are paying much higher wages and health benefits at Harvard to your employees there —

DOUG BAILEY: You can go to a McDonald’s in Boston and find a higher wage rate than here in Southern Florida. I mean, market conditions vary from place to place. You know, as I said, we have 9,000 unionized employees. We have 18,000 employees across the country. You can go to Phoenix, you can go to Seattle — there are different wage rates for different markets. If the union is successful in the current campaign, all it will do is make UNICCO uncompetitive in this market, because we’ll be forced to pay a higher rate than our own competitors will have to pay. It will drive us out of business. They have thousands of, you know, unionized workers that will be affected if this company goes out of business. Is that what they want? Is that the endgame here?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Jill Hurst, what about that? What about if you are successful, you’re going to only end up driving UNICCO out and unable to be able to continue to service the university?

JILL HURST: I cannot imagine how a company with 20,000 employees can be driven out of business by 400 janitors making a living wage and health benefits and choosing to have a union. The truth is that these janitors have been saying that they want an end to the unfair labor practices, they want a living wage, they want health benefits. If the university finally decides to do that, that’s because of the struggle led by these janitors. And we’ll be thrilled; that will be a tremendous victory for these workers. And we think it will give hope to millions of workers in Southern Florida, where people really see this as a fight to change this community.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jill Hurst —

JILL HURST: It’s a tremendously poor city.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll have to leave it there. Jill Hurst, Deputy Director of Property Services Division of the Service Employees International Union, and Doug Bailey of UNICCO, spokesperson there; and special thanks to translator Gretchen Begley.

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