UNICCO is a Boston-based company with whom the University of Miami contracts to provide cleaning and groundskeeping services. When the strike began, on February 28th, many of the workers were making around $6.50 an hour (some after 25 years of service). They had no health benefits and were often asked to do jobs for which they were not properly trained, including mixing chemicals in unsafe ways. When they began attempts to unionize with SEIU, UNICCO kicked in with the usual anti-union practices. Currently, the National Labor Relations Board has found "reason to believe" that UNICCO threatened, intimidated, interrogated and spied on pro-union workers on campus. This finding by the NLRB is equivalent to an indictment for a crime in labor law. There is a hearing scheduled for the end of May, but it may be delayed because the NLRB is also investigating the company for firing a leading union organizer on the eve of the strike vote and making numerous threats against striking workers. To protest these unfair labor practices, about 140 of the 400 workers went on strike on February 28th.
Why are all the workers not on strike?
They are scared of retaliation by UNICCO. The National Labor Relations Board has already charged UNICCO officials with unlawful spying, interrogations, threats of reprisals, and various other unlawful actions against the union supporters. One of the union organizers whom UNICCO has not fired yet was asked by a member of the audience at a recent event why some of her colleagues had not walked off the job. Her response was, "They are so afraid." With UNICCO's record, they have good reason to be.
They are also scared of even greater consequences than job loss. Three of our faculty colleagues – Elizabeth Aranda (Sociology), Elena Sabogal (Latin American Studies), and Sallie Hughes (Communication) – had this to say in response to a question from another faculty member about the strength of strike support:
We have been researching the immigrant/Latino communities here for a couple of years now. In the course of our research, we have spoken to UNICCO workers on campus. One of the things we have learned is that many are part of a vulnerableThe university increased the workers' pay and provided health insurance. Why does the strike continue?
population—more than earning poverty wages, these workers share an immigrant
background that places them at an additional level of disadvantage. We speculate
that some of them cannot afford to engage in civil disobedience because they
know this could jeopardize their immigrant status. It's not just about losing
their jobs or missed wages—they could put in danger the right to be in this
country. One thing we have consistently heard in our interviews is that life as
an immigrant has become harder to endure since 9/11 due to increasing fears of
deportation in spite of being in the country legally. So, they lay low—something
that is incompatible with a public demonstration. We feel this makes their fight
even more courageous. In speaking to some of the workers in the past week, they
have expressed to us how much they appreciate that students and faculty are
fighting their fight. Even though some who we have spoken to do not plan to
picket, rather than interpret this as a sign of ambivalence or non-support, in
our view, it is part of their strategies for survival that involve remaining
"invisible." The legal community could probably speak more on this issue that we
can, but many immigrants feel that even if they are here legally, they are
subject to deportation if they are arrested. This underscores their
vulnerabilities as a population marginalized by multiple structures of
inequality, something we should keep in mind as the strike unfolds.
On March 20th, UM President Donna Shalala announced that "effective immediately, the minimum hourly wage for all employees of outside service contractors is $8.00 per hour. Housekeepers, who previously had a starting hourly wage of $6.40, now have a minimum starting hourly wage of $8.55. Groundskeepers, who previously had a starting hourly wage of $6.40, now have a minimum starting hourly wage of $9.30." Of course, this step was welcome. But this was not a strike for a pay increase (which, in fact, is illegal). It was over the unfair labor practices employed in an attempt to impede unionization. Pay increases that are dependent on the generosity of an employer or a client of a contractor are likely to be ephemeral if the workers do not have a place at the table in future negotiations.
Furthermore, it should be pointed out that even with the pay increase, workers will still make well below a living wage. Both Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami both have living wage ordinances that require (in the case of the more recent City of Miami one) all contractors to pay a minimum of $10.58 per hour if they also provide health insurance and $11.83 per hour if not.
And what about health insurance?
On March 20th, President Shalala also announced that all contractors with the university must provide health insurance with low monthly premiums to encourage enrolment. The full details of the plan UNICCO will offer are not yet publicly available, so we know nothing about levels of deductibles, co-payments, coverage, etc. The monthly premiums have been announced. For a single employee, the rate is an affordable $13. However, for employee and spouse it is $266 and for employee and child $241. For family coverage, the premium is a staggering $493! For a worker making $8.50 per hour and working 40 hours per week, this would mean 36% of their total income. For someone making about $500,000 (as the Washington Post reports President Shalala’s salary to be around), this would be like paying around $15,000 per month for the premium.
What about card check versus NLRB elections?
The janitors are asking UNICCO to agree to recognize a union if a majority of the workers sign cards saying that that’s what they want. This is a perfectly legal method of union recognition and is called a majority sign-up card check recognition process (or some abbreviation thereof). But it only works if the employer, UNICCO in this case, agrees. UNICCO has not agreed and it favors another method of union recognition, a secret ballot election run by the federal National Labor Relations Board. UNICCO signifies its preference for this method by its slogan: "Let ‘em vote."
Isn’t an election preferrable to any other method? No. Democracy is based on free choice. Secret ballot elections are good only insofar as they promote freedom of choice (which they obviously do in many circumstances). In this case, however, they do not. Here are some reasons why NLRB elections are not preferrable to card check.
1) A recent academic study shows that workers are subject to a lot more intimidation by employers (and slightly more by pro-union forces) in NLRB elections than in card check. And there are many ways in which the mechanics of an NLRB election fall short of democratic standards. In particular, in an NRLB election, only the employer has access to exactly who and how many will vote; only the employer can hire or fire the voters, and raise or lower their pay; only the employer has unrestricted access to the voters, including the possibility of one-on-one anti-union meetings. By contrast, card check is usually accompanied by a declaration of neutrality by both the union and the employer.
2) Card check is more representative. In an NLRB election, the decision is made only by a majority those who vote. In card check, if a worker does not fill out a card, that is taken as a no vote. Hence card check requires a majority of all the workers to succeed.
3) Card check is actually the norm. The New York Times reports that last year, 70% of all private sector workers unionized were unionized by card check or related methods. UNICCO itself uses card check frequently. The SEIU estimates that of UNICCO’s 8,000 unionized employees, about 90% were unionized by card check or related process, only 10% by NLRB election. UNICCO puts the figure at 50%, but even on their figure, it can hardly be claimed that card check is unusual.
4) It is common for NLRB elections to be accompanied by huge delays. In many cases, after successful unionization votes in NLRB elections, it has taken up to five, six or even seven years before negotiations for a contract with the union began.
5) There is in congress a bill moving forward called the Employee Free Choice Act (S. 842 and H.R. 1696). If this bill becomes law, employers like UNICCO would be required to accept a successful card check process. The bill is currently co-sponsored by 40 senators and 200 representatives, from both parties.
6) The NLRB will not even hold an election until the existing unfair labor practice charges against UNICCO are resolved. There is no knowing when this will be.
7) 57% of the UNICCO employees at UM have said they want to be allowed to decide whether to unionize by the card check method.