UM President Shalala published a piece in today’s Miami Herald in which she advances the following two views. First, that the university is not a party to the labor dispute on-going between Unicco, who contracts with UM to provide janitorial and groundskeeping services, and those of its employees who are now in their seventh week of strike and some of whom are in their third week of hunger strike. Secondly, that concerning one of the main points of contention, the method to be used by employees to decide whether to have a union, the university supports Unicco’s position and rejects that of the SEIU, the union that is suppoting the strike.
Regarding the first point, it cannot be forgotten that UM is Unicco’s employer. Like any employer, UM is morally (and perhaps also legally) responsible for Unicco’s behavior in doing the job UM pays it to do. The federal National Labor Relations Board has issued a complaint against Unicco (equivalent to indicting it for a crime), having found "reason to believe" that Unicco has threatened, intimidated, interrogated and spied on pro-union workers at UM. It 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. As Unicco’s employer, UM needs to be publicly and vigorously attentive to such issues lest the university be perceived as complicit with Unicco. Furthermore, it is most certainly the university’s business to ensure a campus free from harassment and injustice of any kind.
Furthermore, President Shalala says the university has stepped up and done the right thing by requiring all its contractors to raise the pay of the janitors and ensure them some health insurance. But their wages, even after this increase, are well below a living wage as determined by both the City of Miami and Miami Dade County, both of which refuse to contract with companies that pay less than a living wage.
The second point concerns the method of unionization. President Shalala and Unicco are both insisting on an NLRB election whereas the workers want to use a method called card check recongition, in which a union is recognized if a majority of workers sign cards saying that is what they want. It may seem as if there is little difference and that, if anything, a secret-ballot election must surely be the more democratic process. Unfortunately, that is far from true. NLRB elections can take years to be resolved, during which time pro-union workers are fired or otherwise intimidated. One of the cases which President Shalala uses as evidence that the union accepts NLRB elections makes this very point: the Pan American Hospital. It took over two years after the workers there voted in an NLRB election for a union before a contract was finally negotiated. Other cases are even worse, some having gone on for 6 or 7 years. Furthermore, if it is true that SEIU has sometimes agreed to elections, it is also true that Unicco has agreed to card check for somewhere between 50% and 90% of its unionized workers.
President Shalala says that "SEIU and it supporters are pressuring the university to require Unicco to accept the method [card check] that does not guarantee participation by all employees." In so far as this claim even makes sense, it actually gets things backwards. Neither method, card check or NLRB election, guarantees participation by all employees. Workers can refuse to sign a card and refuse to vote in an election. But card check only succeeds if a majority of all the workers say they want a union, whereas NLRB elections are won by a majority only of those who actually vote. It is the card check method that actually guarantees greater representativeness. That is one of the several reasons why card check is now actually the norm in the United States. According to the New York Times, about 70% of all private sector workers unionized last year were unionized via card check or similar processes.
President Shalala has repeatedly tried to paint this as a hysterical dispute over a minor process issue. But the issue is really one of freedom of choice. 57% of the workers at UM have said they want to use card check. They have chosen this method. And the NLRB election route is, despite its uses of secret ballots, simply not an effective way of implementing freedom of choice. You cannot judge a democratic process by looking only at the moment of casting a vote or signing a card. The fact is, the rhetoric of secret ballots and democratic elections is belied by the regulations surrounding NLRB elections, which enable employers to have anti-union one-on-one meetings with all the voters while denying any comparable access to the union, which enable employers to raise or lower salaries, threaten to close the business, hire or fire workers, and so on.
President Shalala’s misleading characterization of the whole dispute is just further evidence that the university is an actively involved party, taking the side of Unicco. As such, the university has made itself fair game as a target for demonstrations (though President Shalala’s allegation that "bullies" and "professional protesters" have been brought in is really too ridiculous). What the university really needs to do is to stop pretending to be neutral while siding with Unicco and stand up for the law, for freedom of choice by the workers and for justice on the UM campus. One easy but effective step she could take is to urge her employee, Unicco, to start negotiating in earnest with the SEIU and to state publicly that she supports any democratic and legal solution to the problem as long as it represents the free choice of the people who keep UM clean and beautiful.