Issue Date: May 19, 2006
Backed by church, janitors push for union
By MICHAEL NEWALL
A two-month labor dispute involving nearly 100 University of Miami janitors striking for higher wages, safer working conditions and a fair unionization process was settled in early May. The Miami archdiocese had played a major role in resolving the dispute, with local clergy, archdiocesan social justice organizations, and Auxiliary Bishop Felipe Estévez all calling on the university to pressure its cleaning contractor to meet the workers demands and bring and end to the conflict, which began on Ash Wednesday and included a 16-day hunger strike by 10 janitors and five students.
The Catholic community got involved, said Anthony Vinciguerra, director of the Center for Justice and Peace at the archdioceses St. Thomas University, because the issue of low-income workers gets at one of the core challenges in Catholic social teaching, which is, How do we treat the most poor and vulnerable in our society?
The archdiocese supported the Service Employers International Unions efforts to unionize the universitys 425 janitors, who work for a subcontractor, the Boston-based UNICCO Service Company. The janitors, predominantly Cuban and Central American immigrants with working papers, were among the lowest-paid university workers in the country, averaging only about $7 per hour. They were not offered health coverage and claim they have been forced to handle infectious waste and dangerous chemicals. Some workers claim to have been harassed and even fired for supporting the union.
Three weeks after the workers first walked out, university president Donna Shalala raised workers salaries to at least $8.40 an hour and offered health insurance to all janitors at a cost of $13 a month. We are very satisfied that this new university program establishes a wage and benefit level that is near the top of the market, wrote Shalala in a March 20 letter to students.
But the strike continued.
$8.40 may be market rate for janitors in Miami, said Vinciguerra, who along with Estévez sits on the board of the South Florida Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. But it is not a just wage that allows workers to adequately provide their families with the basic necessities of food, housing, health care and education. Nor does it even meet Miamis recently passed living-wage ordinance that requires all city workers be paid $10.58 per hour.
Another reason the strike continued, said the unions executive vice president, Eliseo Medina, was that UNICCO balked at giving workers a fair and easy unionization process. The service employees wanted union recognition as soon as a majority of janitors signed cards of support. UNICCO favored a government-supervised secret election.
Secret elections can drag on for months, even years, said Medina, which would allow UNICCO all the time in the world to intimidate and harass workers into opposing a union. Medina said that 70 percent of the janitors have already signed cards favoring a union.
Cristin Brown, a UNICCO spokesperson, said the card-check method of voting would allow the unions more leeway to manipulate the process. We feel a secret ballot is much more democratic, Brown said, and much more representative of the workers true intentions.
The strike settlement was reached May 1. According to the agreement, a neutral third party, the American Arbitration Association, will verify pledge cards signed by workers in support of unionization. A 60 percent majority will be needed by Aug. 1 in order for the janitors to win union recognition.
The workers are ecstatic, said Medina. We have ensured the janitors an independent voice in the unionization process.
This is great news, Vinciguerra said. We feel that the rights and dignity of the workers has been upheld.
The strike took on a larger, more symbolic meaning, said Vinciguerra, in light of Miamis ever-rising poor population.
Estévez said, The situations of the workers at UM has been a magnificent opportunity for the students to become aware of the reality of the working class -- their need for health insurance and their need to have fair salaries. Im so glad this was solved for the benefit of the workers. But Im even equally happy that it has served to educate very influential leaders of today and tomorrow on the plight of the workers.
Fr. Richard Mullen, parochial vicar of St. Augustine Parish, which is located across the street from the University of Miami in Coral Gables, served as the archdioceses point man throughout the strike. Mullen, 53, is bilingual and worked 20 years as a missionary in Peru. During the strike, he joined an interfaith coalition of local clergy members supporting the janitors and pledging their services as arbitrators in the dispute, an offer Shalala declined. Mullen presided over St. Augustines noontime Spanish language Ash Wednesday Mass, which many of the janitors attended before beginning their strike.
It was a moving occasion, he said. I prayed that the Lord would protect them and their families and that the university and UNICCO would take quick action to resolve the matter.
At a St. Augustines Mass on the first Sunday of Lent, Estévez offered his own services as an arbitrator, which Shalala also refused. Mullen ministered to the 15 hunger strikers who from April 5 to 21 lay in tents set up in a protest zone at the campus entrance, dubbed Freedom Village. On Holy Thursday, in remembrance of the Last Supper, Mullen washed the feet of the hunger strikers. Eight days later, when many of the hunger strikers health had begun to fail, Mullen said a prayer and offered each participant a morsel of bread and some soup.
This whole strike was conducted in a prayerful environment, Mullen said. These workers are very humble, spiritual people.
On Day 15 of the hunger strike, Reinaldo Hernandez lay on his cot in Freedom Village, hungry, nauseated, achy and 30 pounds lighter than when he took his last bite of food. He left the poor sugar cane town of Villa Clara, Cuba, 14 years ago, in search of a better life for his wife and infant son. But his American dream, he said, became a nightmare.
He worked 40 hours a week at $6.40 per hour cleaning at the university. He worked another 30 hours a week scrubbing cars at Alamo and washing dishes at Dennys. His wife works too, he said, and has become mentally ill from the stress.
Florida is poor with high rent and it is very hard to get by, he said in a telephone interview. I live in a very humble house and still have to pay $1,300-a-month rent.
I am 52 years old but cannot see a doctor because I have no health insurance, he continued. I wanted to give my son a better life but could not with the wages I earned.
He said he had passed the time of the hunger strike praying with Mullen and dreaming about his hilltop church in Villa Clara.
I think about God, he said. My belief in God and my belief that he is here with us in this fight for human rights.
Michael Newall is a freelance writer working in Philadelphia.
National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2006
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