Wednesday, March 29, 2006

ashe tuesday

it's tuesday march 28, the 28th day of the janitors' strike, and the janitors still don't have a living wage (their raise is below living-wage level), health insurance (only the promise of a package), or representation (both UNICCO and UM refuse to acknowledge their "super-majoritarian" request for card-check union recognition). these brave people (some of them UM janitors for as long as 25 years) have gone for a whole month without their much-needed paychecks, and have endured constant harassment from UNICCO, which has unlawfully used threats against them to get them to go back to work.

spearheaded by coral gables clergy, a demonstration of faculty and students leaves campus to meet the workers at US1 and Grenada:

with the workers, we are about 300 people. we divide up at the four corners of the intersection:

clergy, workers, and others sit down in the middle of the intersection as an expression of solidarity with the UNICCO workers and are promptly arrested (the coral gables police has been notified in advance):

around this time, we hear that a group of students has peacefully taken over the admissions office in the ashe building in the coral gables campus. we run back. by the time we get there, the building has been secured by police, but many of us still manage to get in. the students are in a circle in the admissions office, which gives onto the main lobby, singing "we shall overcome". father frank corbishley is with them:

outside, a vociferous crowd of janitors shouts its support of the students:

at this point, only faculty, many of whom have their offices in the building, are allowed entry into ashe. but that is sporadic. the police have restricted access to the bathroom, the vending machines, the drinking fountain, the stairs, and the elevators, but are letting some faculty use them.

around 4:30, president shalala calls a meeting with the students in the flamingo ballroom in the university center. the students inside the admission office refuse to leave, so a delegation of student and faculty negotiators is sent. this is a report of the meeting by jane connolly, a faculty member of the negotiating team. along with some ten other faculty members, jane has been inside the lobby of the ashe building since the occupation was announced. she, like all of us, fears that the students are vulnerable to arrest if we leave, so deciding to go is not easy:

President Shalala called for a meeting with students and faculty in the Flamingo Ballroom. Both groups were hesitant to attend believing they wouldn’t be allowed to return. Finally, two from each group in Ashe (though not occupying the admissions office) attended. The students asked that their lawyers be allowed to attend and were denied, with President Shalala saying that the meeting was just for students and faculty. Students explained their demands that the harassment of the workers by Unicco cease and the workers be allowed to unionize by the process they select. President Shalala said that complaints of harassment are for the NLRB to resolve and that the NLRB will have a hearing. She said that she supports the workers’ right to unionize through the democratic process, mentioning the NLRB elections. She asserted that the NLRB process allows for the workers to decide without coercion. We pointed out that labor studies contradict this view, showing that workers are subject to substantial intimidation when an NLRB election has been called. (For this, visit the FAQ with supporting studies on picketine). We asked if she would urge Unicco to let the workers express their views regarding the union in the democratic fashion of their choosing, a card check campaign or an NLRB election. She would not. When we asked why Unicco will not accept a card check when it has done so at other sites, a lawyer from Fowler White Burnett said that Unicco has never recognized a card check. (This claim is untrue: Unicco has recognized card checks for all its employees in the state of NJ, in Washington DC and in New Haven, as well as for some workers in Boston.) Several people asked why, if students weren’t allowed to have their lawyers present, an outside lawyer was there. The question was met with a smile. Asking why the air conditioning in the admissions office was turned off and why they won’t be allowed to bring water in, the President responded that they didn’t want to feed the strike. Once the students confirmed that their demands would not be met, they left. These students were not allowed to return.

the meeting is followed closely by the students on the inside, who communicate via cellphone with their negotiators.

at 5 o'clock, the ashe building is cleared of everyone except the students, police, and members of the administration. a vigil is called outside. students and faculty speak in support of the workers and the students inside. people hold candles.

mary elizabeth, alana, and beni for the students:

frank palmeri (english) for the faculty:

this is all very emotional. the students have been inside without access to the bathroom for 5 hours at this point. the ashe lobby is full of police officers. the first negotiations with the administration broke down. there's a mixture of anxiety, exhilaration, and deep emotion in the crowd outside.

night comes and the students are still inside. the entrance hall of ashe is full of police. pat whitely, vice-dean for student affairs, has been in to talk to them. there are reports that the administration is threatening the students with arrest, suspension, and even expulsion. from the outside, we see them pace back and forth or huddle around in a circle: they seem very concentrated, very focused. people who talk to them on the cell phone report that, though psychologically tried, they are strong in wanting their requests met: living wage and health insurance for the workers; acknowledgment of the workers' right to unionize by a method of their choice; no reprisals against striking workers or students participating in the sit-in.

the ashe lobby packed with police officers. in the back of ashe there are as many as 20 police cars, plus a paddy wagon.

no water no bathrooms.

As the water bottles empty, the urine bottles fill up.

as the night goes on, far from diminishing, the crowd grows. pup tents are put up on the lawn. some students conduct study groups. others play volleyball. workers chat. some, exhausted and cold, doze off. people mill around. we are some 200 strong, at both entrances of ashe. at one point or another, all the 5 local tv channels are present, along with the miami herald and other newspapers. and all through this, through the studying and the chatting and the dozing, the crowd chants loudly, almost non-stop. we need the students and the administration to know that we are here for the long haul.

a little after 8 pm president shalala agrees to meet with the students on their own turf, with only one condition: that father corbishley be out of the room. after a longish deliberation, the group rejects the condition. the students feel too vulnerable without father corbishley in the room and the police surrounding them. more time passes. eventually the students agree to have father corbishley sit just outside the admissions office, in the ashe building lobby, allowed to re-enter the moment the meeting with the president is over. a series of meetings starts. the students and the president meet for 30 or 40 minutes, then break, then meet again.

the crowd cheers on, tirelessly.

president shalala exits the admissions office at the end of the negotiations.

at about 1:30 it is announced that a mutually satisfactory agreement has been reached. everyone rushes to the back of ashe, where the students emerge in good spirits and good health. tanya and mewelau immediately convene a press conference in which they announce that the university is releasing a statement to the Associated Press to the effect that within 48 hours a group made up of workers, STAND students, faculty, law school faculty, the SEIU, UNICCO, and the administration will convene to discuss the situation. the crowd erupts in cheers as we all rush to embrace the students.

here are the exact words of the statement issued by the university and read by tanya and mewelau:

Statement from the University of Miami
March 29, 2006

The University of Miami today affirmed its commitment to the following:

    • There have been claims of coercion and intimidation regarding the hourly employees of UNICCO Service Company working at the University of Miami. The University will not tolerate coercion or intimidation of anyone on its campuses or unjustified dismissals. The University will send letters to the CEO of UNICCO Service Company and to the president of the SEIU stating that the University will not tolerate such tactics.

    • The University reiterates its position not to employ contractors who do not respect workers’ rights to unionize and commits to encouraging UNICCO and the SEIU to adopt a process that will provide the employees of UNICCO with the ability to determine whether or not they want union representation free of any coercion or intimidation.

    • The University encourages the SEIU and UNICCO to commence a dialogue with respect to allowing the UNICCO employees an opportunity to decide whether or not they want union representation and how that determination will be made. In this regard, a meeting will be convened within 48 hours with the following representatives invited: SEIU, UNICCO, UNICCO contract employee leaders, S.T.A.N.D., UM faculty, and UM law faculty. The University officials will be at this meeting regardless of which parties show up.

    • The right to express opinions is a core value of the University community. All members of the UM community possess the freedom to advance personal political or social positions insofar as the exercise of freedom of expression does not inhibit the rights of other members of the community or interfere with University business.

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Media Contact: Margot Winick / 305-284-5500

1 comment:

Marc said...

I am so proud of our students, faculty, clergy, janitors, and groundskeepers!

The student sit-in was a courageous act, showing real solidarity with the janitors' and groundskeepers' cause. Because of it, real progress will be made.