Janitors at the University of Miami, most living at or close to the poverty level, have taken concerns about their working conditions to the next level -- a strike. Many have said they are willing to forgo days of pay they describe as meager to raise awareness about low-income workers. And since Tuesday evening, an increasing number have taken to the picket lines, demanding action by both university administrators and the company they work for.
“Too many people are suffering and don’t have money or health insurance,” said Darrell Francis, a member of the janitorial groundskeeping crew, who joined the strike on Thursday. “I’m not only in this for me -- so many people are living from paycheck to paycheck and don’t have a decent salary to get by on.”
In November, Maria Galindo, a janitor at the University of Miami’s Jackson Memorial Medical Center, told Inside Higher Ed about some of her concerns.  She said that she made about $11,000 a year for eight hours of nightly work. She said that she and her three children had no health insurance, and that she was in debt because of medical costs that she had to pay out of pocket.
At that time, Galindo and others of the 400 or so janitors at the university, who are employed by a contract company called UNICCO, said that supervisors were becoming more strict -- cutting break times, and increasing the number of rooms to be cleaned by each staffer. Galindo also said that they began making workers use a cleaning product that has caused employees to get bloody noses and feel light-headed.
Some janitors charged that UNICCO was trying to discourage them from trying to organize with the Service Employees International Union. SEIU has played a key role in helping janitors carry out the strike. Some janitors have said that support for a strike solidified after UNICCO fired Zoila Mursuli, a janitor who was seen by many as a leader in the effort to unionize, after she talked to The Orlando Sentinel.
“These are a group of brave workers who have chosen to go against the wishes of a rich university and powerful company,” Renee Asher, a spokeswoman for SEIU, said Thursday. “And they are gaining an enormous amount of support from students, faculty members, the clergy and the general public."
Since the strike began, about 70 faculty members have chosen not to cross the lines and have held their classes off university grounds, and a few students have joined the picket lines, according to union officials.
Doug Bailey, a spokesman for UNICCO, said in November that the company would consider paying employees more money, if the university wanted to renegotiate its contract, which has been in place since 1996.
He said on Thursday that no more than 50 janitors have actually participated in the strike, despite statements from several janitors that put the number at 100 or more. He also labeled the strike as a tactic organized by SEIU for “good television” and “entertainment.”
“Why don’t the union organizers just let the janitors vote on forming a union?” Bailey asked, referring to one process by which the National Labor Relations Board recognizes unions. “If they had the votes to unionize, wouldn’t they just let them vote?”
SEIU organizers prefer a card-check process, also recognized by the NLRB, as a way to unionize. Asher said that companies can often have more influence over the vote route, by sponsoring anti-union meetings and privately threatening employees, than they do over a card-check process.
Even though many janitors have concerns with UNICCO, the big surprise, according to Francis, is that Donna E. Shalala, Miami’s president and the Clinton administration’s secretary of health and human services, has not made more of an effort to support the formation of a union.
Last month, Shalala announced that she was “establishing a work group charged with conducting a thorough review of compensation and benefits accorded to all contract employees working on our campuses.”
“The work group’s focus will be to gather and analyze pertinent data regarding wages, health care benefits, recruitment, retention, current and future University needs, and market rates for comparable positions,” she said. “Its final product will be the basis for a plan of action for the future.”
Findings from the work group are expected by the end of March.
On Thursday, Shalala elaborated via e-mail on why she hasn’t taken a firm stand in favor of the janitors. “We must not interfere in the union’s right to organize,” she said. “They are now in their ninth month and the NLRB rules are very clear about no interference."
A labor attorney who works for a national labor union in Washington, not affiliated with SEIU, said that an employer, like Shalala, “has a right of free speech to express facts” and could say publicly if she understood why someone would want a union. NLRB rules indicate that an employer may not influence the decisions of employees.
When asked whether she has been strategically quiet all along, in an effort to not harm the janitors’ ability to unionize, Shalala responded, “Maybe you could call it strategic but I am constrained by legal issues, too -- in leadership, never talk until you can deliver.”