Miami's Union Breakthrough

May 2, 2006

On Monday, after weeks of hunger striking and several trips to the hospital, janitors at the University of Miami saw their employer, UNICCO Service Company, and the union that wants to represent them, the Service Employees International Union, reach an agreement that could have them unionizing before fall semester.

The parties agreed to conduct an impartial process to verify whether a majority of employees are interested in collective bargaining representation by the SEIU. At least 60 percent of the workers must vote in favor of unionizing by August 1, 2006 for UNICCO to recognize the union. Under terms of the agreement, a card-check verification process will be conducted by a neutral third party, the American Arbitration Association.

Renee Asher, a spokeswoman for SEIU, said that 67 percent of workers have already expressed interest in joining a union.

The union and UNICCO also agreed to a code of conduct and behavior which will govern the verification process. That code was not publicly released. 

“Our goal was to preserve as many rights for our employees as possible,” said Cristin Brown, a spokeswoman for UNICCO. “They’re going to have the right to choose.”

The dispute at Miami has become a focal point for labor activists and political leaders nationwide who want to help low-income workers at colleges, especially at institutions that outsource work to companies. The dispute at Miami follows major student activism on behalf of janitors at Washington University in St. Louis and helped encourage activists at the University of Virginia, among other campuses.

At an impromptu celebratory gathering after the agreement was released, several janitors said they were excited to vote to join SEIU. Most make less than $11,000 a year for a full eight hours of work each day and do not have health insurance.

Throughout the school year, students had worked hard to support the janitors, joining in rallies and participating in hunger strikes. “Student support was instrumental,” said Asher. “They shared a vision with the janitors on how to make this university a just place.”  

As part of the agreement, employees, 100 of whom had been striking since late February, will return to work on Wednesday and unfair labor practice charges filed by both parties will be immediately withdrawn from the National Labor Relations Board.

Miami administrators were not available for comment on the agreement and President Donna Shalala was said to be on travel. However, Asher said that Shalala had worked hard behind the scenes during the negotiations. Shalala, known for her work in Democratic administrations and progressive politics, had been criticized some labor leaders for not backing the janitors, but Miami officials have said that their ability to influence the situation was limited, since the janitors were technically employees of another entity.

"The university has always maintained a neutral stance on this issue and has encouraged UNICCO and the SEIU to negotiate a resolution,” according to a statement from the university. “It is now up to the UNICCO employees to decide.”

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