Wednesday, October 04, 2006

FIU does the right thing: a column by ana menendez

things are definitely astir in south florida universities. last week, FIU accepted its janitors' union drive, rescinded its contract with UNICCO, and will rehire the janitors directly. the janitors previously hired by UNICCO will be given precedence over other applicants. they will be unionized with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. the SEIU helped greatly in this effort. now it's NOVA's turn to do the right thing...

FIU opts to do the right thing about janitors


In the end, there were some things more important than money. It's going to cost at least $1.8 million more a year but Florida International University is bringing its janitors back home.

As state employees, they'll have access to benefits that until now were beyond their reach and increasingly are the stuff of dreams for many hourly workers: healthcare, vacations and salaries that allow them to live, if not comfortably, at least above the poverty line.

''We needed to take the high road on this. We needed to do what was right,'' said FIU's chief financial officer Vivian Sanchez, who credited university President Modesto Maidique with the call to end 10 years of outsourcing custodial work.

At a time when more and more businesses live in thrall of accountants, FIU's new plan for its janitors shows that doing the right thing sometimes has value beyond the bottom line.

FIU may have been inspired by the protracted and sometimes ugly fight to unionize janitors at the University of Miami. Sanchez acknowledged that they were ''sensitized'' to the issue by the strike at UM and the publicity it generated.

But in contrast to UM, where the faculty last week chastised the administration for its handling of campus protests, FIU met the issue with grace.

It's a move that is no less laudable for being shrewd. FIU is in the midst of a remarkable expansion that is not just remaking the physical campus but also is transforming the university's idea of itself.

In 20 years, FIU has gone from being the scrappy local state school to a leading research and academic institution.

Last week it also became a leader in the push to make South Florida a more humane place to live and work.

''I wish the big companies would follow,'' said Tom Beasley, president of the university chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that will represent the janitors.

''This is a very difficult and expensive town to live in. And these folks, they're making the lowest wages possible while trying to live in this community,'' he said. ``And we need them. We all function together and have responsibilities to each other.''

Miami-Dade's billion-dollar skyline overshadows one of the poorest communities in the country, a city where one in every five people lives below the poverty line. In Florida, more than 3 million people don't have health insurance.

The reasons are many, but one trend that has exacerbated the plight of the working poor is the move to outsource jobs. It saves companies money, but often hurts the most vulnerable workers, stripping them of group health insurance.

Nationwide, most of the 9 million children without health insurance today have at least one parent who works full-time, according to a new report by the group Families USA, which advocates universal health care. In many ways, they were the perfect target of unionizing drives in South Florida: the men and women who scrub the floors and toilets at the highest centers of learning.

Lots of businesses need a good shaming in this town, but few were easier to embarrass than universities that, while raising millions, paid their humblest workers pennies.

After the UM janitors walked out, the story of men and women trying to get by on as little as $6.40 an hour resonated in a place where a middle class feels increasingly embattled.

Now the two largest universities have moved to do right by their janitors; only Nova Southeastern remains. Nova's announcement -- in the middle of a union drive -- that it may rebid its contract with the company that provides custodial services is troubling.

FIU may have acted out of pressure, but the university also spoke its conviction, one that other large businesses should follow: that every working person, no matter their education or job skills, is entitled to fair treatment and respect.

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