Saturday, April 22, 2006

Passing the baton

This week's most important event was the passing of the baton, in which the hunger striking workers, after 17 days with no food, and the hunger striking students, with up to 10 days of no food, broke their fast and handed the baton on to a new group of people from the labor, religious, academic and general community. At a moving prayer ceremony yesterday, Eliseo Medina, the Vice President of the SEIU, who has been on hunger strike with Cesar Chavez, began an indefinite hunger strike:

Also there to accept the baton was Andy Stern, SEIU President, who will be fasting at Freedom Village for 72 hours:

Prayers were conducted by Father Frank Corbishley, Father Rich Mullen and Rev. James Bush III:

"Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my bretheren, ye have done it unto me" (Matthew xxv, 40)

"My ears were listening to all the speakers, but my eyes were always looking at the bread" (Mewelau Hall, hunger striking student - not pictured here)

Others willing to take up the baton included:

"We're here to take the baton to get you to the next level... We are not going to give in" Rev. James Bush III

"We'll be back next week and the week after that, as long as you need us" Bruce Nissen (United Faculty of Florida)

"Let this be the last Passover that people have been denied the right to organize" Jack Lieberman (Jewish community leader)

"You have sacrificed your health, even your life, for all of us" Monica Russo (SEIU Florida Healthcare Union)

"It's time to crank it up... Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I don't eat until you win" Linda Belgrave (Miami for Peace and Justice, and UM faculty)

"You will have justice" unidentified

Jeanette Smith (Miami Friends), John Murphy and Dana Rasch (UM, Sociology) and Hugh Thomas (UM, History)

The last seven photos were taken from an event on Monday 17th April at which people pledged their support to help continue the protest if the hunger strikers would allow them. There were many more - apologies to those not pictured, and profound thanks to all. Here are some recordings of speeches at Monday's events:

this is an audio post - click to playRev. James Bush, Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Bruce Nissen, United Faculty of Florida; representative of Haitian American Youth of Tomorrow; Hugh Thomas, UM

this is an audio post - click to playHugh Thomas, cont'd; Jack Lieberman, Jewish-Arab Dialogue Association; Monica Russo, SEIU Florida Healthcare Union

this is an audio post - click to playMonica Russo, cont'd

this is an audio post - click to playRay, Haiti Solidarity; Linda Belgrave, South Florida Peace and Justice Network and UM; unidentified

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Donna Shalala, former Secretary of Health and Human Services and the current president of the University of Miami (UM), has come under repeated pressure by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and members of the student group Students Toward a New Democracy (STAND) to use her influence to force Unicco to agree to the union’s terms in the ongoing dispute over the process by which the workers may choose to unionize.

At the center of the dispute is a disagreement between Unicco, the service facility management company that provides contract janitorial and landscaping services for UM, and the SEIU over whether the workers should use a process called ‘Card Check’ or a secret ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) to decide whether or not to unionize.

Unicco favors the secret ballot, while SEIU is demanding card check.

Members of STAND staged a 14-hour sit-in in the lobby of the Ashe administration building on March 28th in support of card check. The standoff resulted in a near shut down of the building for most of that time with extremely limited access granted intermittently. During the sit-in a large group of protestors clad in SEIU T-shirts gathered at the main entrance chanting a variety of expressions in Spanish, including Ceasar Chavez’ famous call to action, “Yes we can.”

Since the initial sit-in, STAND, SEIU, and even outside groups have made repeated attempts to gain access to the building. On Friday April 14th, former Democratic Congressman David Bonior arrived at the front door at the head of a group of approximately 20 protestors. Bonior was eventually given access to the building and escorted to a meeting with President Shalala.

Throughout the tumult of these labor protests, Donna Shalala has remained steadfast in her assertion that UM must remain neutral.

“The union obviously wants to pull us in to taking sides,” she said. “We keep repeating we cannot take sides but we cannot be opposed to an election.”

In response to that SEIU and STAND have accused the university of engaging in union-busting and clandestinely taking Unicco’s side in the dispute.

“There’s no evidence of that,” she said. “SEIU has not charged us with union-busting; they’ve charged us with being neutral.”

Shalala further stated that SEIU has continuously argued that UM should get more involved on their side of the issue.

“We have simply refused to do that,” said Shalala.

The March 28th sit-in received a good deal of press coverage. Subsequent actions have received far less.

STAND and SEIU have also begun to experience an increasing level of opposition from students who disagree with the tactics being employed by the union and its allies.

Letters to the editor of the Miami Hurricane student newspaper expressing disapproval with STAND and SEIU have increased in number since the March sit-in. In President Shalala’s weekly seminar course members of STAND and the union were shouted down by students in the class as they attempted to enter and disrupt the course proceedings. On April 6th, the Graduate Student Association Senate passed a resolution 10 – 4 in support of Shalala’s handling of the labor dispute and in condemnation of the tactics used such as the sit-ins and the recently SEIU convened hunger strike taking place across the street from the university’s entrance.

In addition, the STAND and SEIU protests attempting to enter the Ashe building have not only found university security in place and ready to respond, but have found their protests attended by an ever-diminishing number of students. The attempted disruption led by former Congressman Bonior brought with it no more than 40 people and broke up within an hour. STAND leader Jake Coker-Dukowitz was seen to be visibly frustrated by the lack of attendance.

Another issue STAND and SEIU have raised is the accusation that Unicco is using coercive tactics to prevent many of its workers from exercising their collective bargaining rights. As such, both groups have accused Shalala of turning a blind eye to this concern.

“There has been one charge that I know of and the NRLB is going to hear these issues in May,” she said. “I have written a very strong letter to both SEIU and Unicco saying that we do not want violations going on and that we expect them to behave professionally as part of this process.”

SEIU has subsequently organized a hunger strike in its effort to attain card check as the official method of unionization. In response to the characterization that the current dispute between card check and an election is “an issue of process,” SEIU and STAND have likened their advocacy of card check to the issue of civil and human rights.

“Denying people access to their health insurance once it’s offered could be considered a civil rights violation,” said Shalala. “Keeping people away from a job where they get an increase in pay and keeping them away from their health care is inappropriate.”

On the issue of whether sanctions should be made against those students who participate in disruption of university facilities, President Shalala expressed support of Constitutional rights like freedom of speech and expression.

“First of all, students have a right to protest; no question,” she said. “What they don’t have a right to do, nor does any other member of our community, is to interfere in our teaching, in our research, or in our patient care.”

She added, “In this case we’re trying to not only protect people’s rights to voice their opinion, but also to protect the majority’s right to go to school.”

In the final analysis, Donna Shalala stated the university’s firm commitment to protecting the rights of students to be able to pursue their education without being disrupted.

“We will not allow the university’s educational mission to be interfered with,” she said. “You have a right to demonstrate, you have the right to scream and yell, but you don’t have the right to interfere with another student’s right to go to class.”

This interview was conducted on April 12th.