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Hungry for Recognition

April 11, 2006

Janitors at the University of Miami have entered their second week of hunger striking. Already, their efforts have gotten the attention of students, faculty members and the national media, and prompted some changes by university administrators. But according to several staff members, the university has not taken strong enough actions on behalf of low-wage workers.

Nine janitors and six students began their fast on April 4. On day four of the water-only fast, one worker, Isabel Montalvo, experienced irregular blood pressure and had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. On day five, another janitor, Odalys Rodriguez, was taken to the hospital after a medical professional determined she was at risk for a stroke.

More students will join the protest Wednesday, according to leaders of Student Towards a New Democracy, or STAND. And janitors have also reached out to members of Harvard College’s Student Labor Action Movement to help put more pressure on the university's president, Donna E. Shalala. 

Since late February, more than 100 janitors at Miami have been striking, arguing that UNICCO, the contractor that Miami uses to fill many of the janitorial positions, has been mistreating works by increasing workloads, a charge UNICCO strongly denies. The strike and the protests, organizers say, are designed to press Shalala and other Miami administrators to “make good on her public statements and force UNICCO to obey the law.”

In March, the university released recommendations that would set a minimum wage and increase access to some level of health care for contract workers on the campus, including the janitors, which supporters of the janitors heralded at the time as a victory. However, according to Renee Asher, an SEIU spokeswoman, the report does not instruct UNICCO to obey labor laws or address the problems involving UNICCO's actions, which, she and janitors say, include dozens of labor rights violations and work place safety issues. The statement also fell short, critics say, because Shalala did not acknowledge the janitors' freedom to form a union.

Shalala did not respond to requests for comment, but a university spokeswoman says that the welfare of students and workers is of great concern to all administrators.

“We need to escalate now because the clock is ticking,” according to flyers put out by the STAND activist group. “UNICCO’s Web site states that all they plan to do is to wait for the summer when students leave.”

"It is good they recognize our pay is too low," says Clara Vargas, a UNICCO janitor who is participating in the hunger strike. "With a company like UNICCO, we need the security of a union contract. We can't rely only on promises when it comes to providing for our families. We want to decide our own future."

 

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