Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Janitors at UC Berkeley Picket - and Howard Dean Supports Them

Check out this story from the San Francisco Chronicle (May 29) by Rick DelVecchio.

UC Berkeley may be the finest public university in the nation, but the toilets have to be cleaned the same as anyplace else.

The 300 custodians who do the university's scrubbing pointed up this household reality during their recent picketing of graduation ceremonies. Their message: They work for the top-rated public institution of higher learning but earn a below-average wage.

Picketing by the janitors union frustrated six commencement events -- the speakers, including former presidential candidate Howard Dean, refused to cross the janitors' lines -- and rankled Cal at a time of embarrassment over questionable executive pay deals by top officials in the university system.

Dean said workers can't support their families on what Cal pays its janitors. [cont'd]

Going Super-NOVA

Here's some information about the situation of the UNICCO janitors at Nova Southeastern University.

There will be a COMMUNITY MEETING with janitors from Nova and community members. Building on the success at the University of Miami, janitors at Nova and community members are meeting to discuss how to improve pay, win affordable health insurance, and create a better life for working families at Nova and Broward County. You are warmly invited to attend.

Monday June 15 at 4:00pm
(Reception at 3:30pm)
St. MauriceCatholic Church
2851 Stirling Road, Dania
The situation of the janitors at NOVA is comparable to that of the janitors at UM prior to their strike. Here are some personal stories:

Trinidad Espinoza, UNICCO Janitor at Nova Southeastern University

Trinidad, 45, has worked as a janitor for UNICCO at Nova Southeastern University for the past 3 years. She goes to work at 6 p.m. and works until 2:30 a.m., getting paid $7.25 an hour and does not receive health insurance. She does some part-time work on the side to try to make ends meet, but it is still not enough.

Trinidad can’t buy very much. "Everything in my apartment has been a gift from someone because we can’t buy anything. The fridge is empty." She spends less than $200 a month on groceries and buys lentils and other beans to feed her two daughters. "You just can’t justify that," she said.

She frequently cleans the auditoriums at the university. "After some of the luncheons, they leave behind sirloin steaks for us to throw away. We’re throwing out this incredible food knowing we have nothing in the house."

Trinidad’s difficulties don’t end there. She’s packing her bags because she can no longer afford the $600 a month one bedroom apartment where she and her daughters live. She’s very concerned. "Taking my daughters to a less expensive area is going to be dangerous."

Diana Marcela, Trinidad’s 16 year-old daughter suffers from migraines. But Trinidad can’t take her to the doctor because she doesn’t have health insurance or the money to pay the doctors’ bills. "My downstairs neighbor will bring up some pills for the pain, but what Diana needs is to see a doctor so we can get to the root of her problem."
"For us it would be a triumph to win union representation after so much humiliation -- the triumph of being able to go to a doctor, and having food in the fridge, as all families should have."

Nora Bermann, UNICCO Janitor at Nova Southeastern University

"We want to feel supported. The cost of living has increased greatly and our wages are not enough."

Nora, 57, has worked as a janitor for UNICCO at Nova Southeastern University for the past 10 years. She goes to work at 6 p.m. and works until 2:30 a.m., getting paid $7.25 an hour. To make ends meet, she works seven days a week, working not only one but two part-time jobs.

Even while working three jobs, she can’t afford her own place to live. She rents a room in a shared house, with most of her remaining income going towards food, a phone, and car payments. She is able to cobble together enough money to pay a monthly health insurance premium. But it’s a low-cost policy that comes with co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses: "I still have to pay when I go see a doctor. I pay over $180 when I need to get some tests done."
Nora says she is part of the campaign by Nova janitors to form a union with SEIU so that she and her co-workers can win a better life. "Winning a union would be a great triumph. We’d be able to get better salaries so that we could pay for our basic necessities. We’d have health insurance and be protected by the union from the many abuses of the company."

Nora, a widow, has survived a hurricane in which she lost everything. "Not even a chair was left." In a city plagued by hurricanes and with a cost of living that keeps rising, she wants to see the work of janitors like herself and her co-workers rewarded with more than just an occasional small raise. "You just can’t live so many years with the same miniscule salary...It is through our sweat and tears that they [UNICCO] have filled their pockets with money. They should at least pay us better."


Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Update on Disciplinary Action Against UM Students

We have learnt the following about the disciplinary action being taken by the UM administration against the students who were actively supporting the janitors' strike at the university.

1) The charges against the students remain “failure to obey a reasonable directive” and “disorderly conduct” –though both have been reduced from Major to Minor (“University”) status.

2) One student chose not to contest the charges and has been given the following punishment: two semesters of probation, 25 hours of community service and a 500-word 'reflection' on questions to be posed by Dean Singleton.

3) Other students have contested the charges and are filing motions to have their hearings postponed until the Fall.
1) is good news since it means, we believe, that expulsion and suspension are off the table as possible punishments. With regard to 2), these students put in a lot more than 25 hours of community service in doing the very things that led to these disciplinary actions. Not only that, but many, if not all of them, have been incredibly involved in a whole host of activities serving the communities they belong to in many ways. They have worked for Greenpeace, for AIDS-activist programs, for anti-poverty groups, for child protection causes and many more. The good thing is, we're sure they are all planning on doing a lot more than 25 hours of community service anyway. As for the 500-word 'reflection'... well, what can one say?

To those who are contesting the charges, we wish them luck.

Free Speech at UM

We lift this post from colleague Michael Froomkin's blog, Froomkin takes issue with the thesis in Jennifer Van Bergen's piece, which we referenced here, that the UM administration's response to the students who were supporting the striking UNICCO janitors at UM was somehow affected by 9/11.

Picketline led me to Findlaw where I find an article by Jennifer van Bergen, "a journalist with a law degree" entitled Speech on Campus After 9/11: Less Free Than It Used To Be?.

The piece's thesis is clearly stated right at the top:

Universities have traditionally been places where debate and the free exchange of ideas have been welcomed. But after 9/11, that may be changing -- as some recent, troubling incidents suggest.

In this column, I'll survey some recent incidents suggesting free speech on campus is in peril, ...

Exhibit A for this thesis is the UM administration's reaction to the strike. And Ms. van Bergen, described elsewhere as a south Florida resident, appears to be serious.

I don't get it.

Please don't misunderstand: I am not here to defend the UM administration's appalling conduct during and after the strike. If students were hauled in on charges and asked to identify each other from photos while being treated in an intimidating manner, that's a violation of our rules (and would be without the intimidating manner, too).

Threatening students with serious consequences for their failure to disperse when ordered is petty and mean, not to mention disproportionate and stupid. Leaving the charges hanging after the strike, instead of resolving them with an amnesty or a wrist slap is unwise (from the administration's viewpoint): so far it has only martyrized them, and will probably radicalize them.

But all this reflexive administrative behavior has nothing to do with 9/11. It has rather more to do with the flawed temperament of our leadership (either the Board of Trustees or President Shalala, or conceivably both) and the poor judgment and limited capacities of certain mid-ranking administrators. In short, your standard story of people in power unable to transcend petty impulses for revenge, and people in a bureaucracy displaying some really lousy judgment during a pressure situation -- then digging in their heels when tempers should have cooled.

But this is the way of the world. People are imperfect. Academic authorities don't like being forced to do stuff by uppity kids, and they never have. And the fact that the kids are right, and that they enlist noble outsiders to say they are right and to force it down the authorities' throats, well, that doesn't help.

But all this has nothing to do with 9/11. UM was like this ten years ago -- indeed, arguably, it may have been substantially worse.

If anything -- and I admit this is reaching a little -- the UM experience with the recent strike proves the reverse of the van Bergen thesis. At one point the administration here tried to float the idea that students protesting were anarchists, or colluding with anarchists, or at least inviting in anarchists, who we were no doubt supposed to believe would in short order turn this pristine tropical campus into some Beirut on the Biscayne.

To the extent anyone paid attention to this silly idea, we just laughed, and it hasn't been heard from since.

Free speech is not in peril on this campus, and we won't let it be. At worst, its ankle is being bitten. Whether that bite turns out to be by a mosquito or a Doberman will turn on what sort of treatment the administration administers to the students it has up on charges. And that remains to be seen.

Report on Florida Minimum Wage by Bruce Nissen

This post, by Mike Hall, is taken from the AFL-CIO blog. It gives details of a report prepared by Bruce Nissen, of Florida International University, that shows that the raise in the Florida minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour, voted for by Floridians in 2004, has had no adverse impact on the economy. Bruce Nissen, as many of you will know, was a friend and supporter of the UM janitors during their recent strike.

We’re not in the business of saying “I told you so.” We’ll leave that to the union and community activists who convinced Florida voters in 2004 that raising the state’s minimum wage was the right thing to do.

While business groups and others launched a campaign to defeat the effort to raise the minimum wage, Florida activists repeatedly pointed out the economy will not suffer if low-wage workers get a raise.

A new study on the law’s impact, after voters approved boosting the wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour starting in May 2005, shows just how bogus the opponents’ arguments were. The higher wage also is tied to the cost of living, which increased it to $6.40 an hour in January.

“One year later, there appears to be no evidence supporting these claims” says the report, authored by University of Chicago professor H. Luke Shaefer and Florida International University’s (FIA’s) Dr. Bruce Nissen. It was commissioned by the Florida chapter of ACORN and FIA’s Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy.

Activists are mobilizing to raise the wage though legislation or ballot initiatives in more than 20 states—and the study provides another piece of credible evidence that raising the minimum wage is a win-win for communities.

The Florida study follows another recent report that found that small businesses job growth was higher in states with a minimum wage greater than the $5.15 federal level, which hasn’t been increased since 1997.

During the campaign, the Florida Retail Association claimed “jobs will be lost—devastating our strong economy.” Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Sen. Mel Martinez (R) weighed in against the pay raise. Grover Norquist, the extremist Republican policymaker behind paycheck deception, Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) and other state campaigns aimed at crippling working people, claimed “Florida cannot afford the economic pain,” of raising the minimum wage.

The report, The Florida Minimum Wage After One Year, examined the state’s employment rate, economic performance, low-wage industries and other economic indicators and found:
Far from having a devastated economy, Florida continues to experience record job growth. Instead of businesses leaving the state, the number of private employers in Florida has grown substantially in the past year, and the state is a national leader in the insourcing of jobs from overseas. Far from workers losing their jobs and being worse off, more of them are working and wages across the state have risen.

Click here to read the full report.

At the federal level, House Democrats are moving to bring a minimum wage bill to the floor that Republican leaders repeatedly have blocked. The legislation (H.R. 2429) introduced by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) would raise the rate to $7.25 an hour over two years. Because the bill has been blocked, backers need a “discharge petition,” which requires the signatures of 218 House members.

Click here to urge your representative to sign the petition.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has introduced the Senate version (S. 1062), and you can click here to become a citizen co-sponsor.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Naming the Beast or Whistling Past the Graveyard

Check out this article by Michael Hirsch on znet. He mentions the strike at UM.

The democratic left's socialist context went missing. If anyone spots it, please call or instant message. We can even put the appeal on milk cartons.

It was not always thus. Forget about the glory days of pre-war socialism, or the red decade of the thirties or even the sober, literary '50s. In April 1965, Paul Potter, then the president of SDS, said the mission of the new radical movement confronting American power was to "name that system. We must name it, "he said, "describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it. For it is only when that system is changed and brought under control that there can be any hope for stopping the forces that create a war in Vietnam today or a murder in the South tomorrow or all the incalculable, innumerable (and) more subtle atrocities that are worked on people all over -- all the time."

Forty one years after Potter made that speech, given on a perfect spring day in Washington when everything seemed possible, as he addressed 25,000 young antiwar protestors (an unheard of number who effectively launched the antiwar movement nationwide), Potter's mandate is still the goal of democratic socialists: naming, describing, analyzing, understanding, organizing, and changing.

SDS said the enemy was corporate liberalism. Looking back, corporate liberalism in its Great Society garb, in its efforts to ensure social peace and even wage a war on poverty, seems enlightened and even kind, at least compared to the contemporary fang and claw ethos.

Today, the enemy's name is neo-liberalism. That is the political ideology that capitalism dresses in and articulates its policies now. It was in the 1970s that Margaret Thatcher opined that there was no such thing as "society," only grubbing individuals engaged in cementing short-term contracts and where the market, not the family or the community or the class, was the instrument of individual choice. [cont'd]

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Lobbying for the Employee Free Choice Act

Read about efforts being made to help the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) move forward in Congress in this article by Mark Gruenberg in the People's Weekly World. EFCA is a bill that would oblige employers to recognize unions on the basis of card check processes, something that, at present, they may choose to do but do not have to do. Although there is some bi-partisan support for the bill, its passage through the present Congress is not smooth. Let's hope that's one of the many things that will change after this November.

Rank-and-Filers Demand Employee Free Choice Act

WASHINGTON (PAI) — Bob Boyle was fired April 28 from Oesterling’s Sandblasting Co., just outside Butler, Pa. “I wanted a little better and safer place to work,” said the 17-year veteran of the plant. Boyle and two other men, all fired for trying to organize for the Steelworkers union, described the hostility, lies and obstacles they encountered in their organizing drives during a May 8 lobbying effort by the union here. The effort, marshaled by Americans for Democratic Action, was in support of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

“The most fundamental problem with U.S. labor law is that it’s good on paper, but the employer doesn’t suffer any fine or any penalty” for law-breaking, explained Human Rights Watch labor specialist Carol Pier. Even when workers win a favorable National Labor Relations Board ruling the appeal process takes five years or more. [cont'd]

Jobs With Justice Workshop on Immigration

Jobs with Justice, South Florida Campus Consortium, will be holding a series of trainings and workshops for activist students interested in learning more about the issues affecting them and their communities. These events will focus on:
  • Immigration - June 8th

  • Labor & Globalization - June 16th

  • Student Activism - June 27th

  • Civil Rights and Police Brutality - July (TBD)
This first workshop, on immigration, will be held on Thursday June 8th at 6pm at Unite for Dignity / SEIU ­ 1525 NW 167th St, Suite 300, Miami.

Join them and learn about the issues affecting thousands of studentsacross the country! Today, an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year without hope of pursuing a higher education. For more information please contact Carolina Delgado at 305-623-4900

Ana Menendez at Books and Books.

Ana Menendez was a powerful voice in the Miami Herald speaking out in support of the striking UNICCO janitors at UM. She did this over the virtual silence, and sometimes explicit opposition, of the Herald. Now you can hear her speak and thank her in person.
Every week, Miami Herald columnist Ana Menendez regales us with her exquisite writing and thoughtful commentary. On Wednesday, June 7, 8pm, at Books & Books Coral Gables, she will open a new series, Between the Lines: Discussion with Miami Herald Columnists, which is created to bring you closer to some of your favorite Miami Herald columnists. Menéndez worked as a journalist for six years, first at The Miami Herald, where she covered Little Havana, and later with The Orange County Register in California. A graduate of NYU's creative writing program, she is the author of the collection of stories, In Cuba I Was a German Shepard and the novel, Loving Che. Find out how she keeps her columns fresh and exciting.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Nation’s Billion-Dollar Mall Industry Can Lift Hundreds of Thousands Out of Poverty by Hiring Responsible Contractors, New Worker Committee Says

SEIU Press Release, May 22

LAS VEGAS—A newly formed committee of property service workers from shopping malls around the country appealed to the nation’s mayors today to call on mall owners to hire responsible contractors who pay living wages, provide affordable health insurance and respect workers’ right to form a union. There are nearly 70,000 janitors and security guards in malls, most of whom are not provided with affordable health insurance and are paid wages that keep workers and their families near poverty. Security guards and janitors in malls are currently seeking to improve their lives by forming a union with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The National Committee for Justice for Mall Workers was formed as part of an effort to lift tens of thousands of contracted-out workers in malls out of poverty, raise industry standards, and improve health and safety training. The committee is made up of mall worker representatives from 10 states. Representatives from the committee will be visiting mayors in various cities across the country over the next few weeks.

Gabrieal Robinson, a janitor at the Shops at Sunset Place in Miami, and Rafael Cruz, a janitor at the Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island, released the letter in Las Vegas at the International Shopping Centers’ spring convention.

Despite working in a mall owned by the largest and one of the richest mall owners in the nation, Simon Property Group (SPG), Gabrieal and a handful of her co-workers are expected to clean more than a half million square feet of mall space each day for less than $64 a day. They are not provided with paid sick days or affordable health insurance.

On the wages she earns cleaning, saving for retirement and quality health care are just a dream. Instead, Gabrieal and tens of thousands of property service workers like her at malls around the country, scramble to pay for medicine, doctor's visits, food, and rent. Despite working hard every day, many live in fear that a medical emergency could leave them and their family homeless or force them to rely on government assistance to care for her family. "I work across the street from the University of Miami. Their struggle to improve their lives inspired me to speak up about the conditions that we face. We work hard but live in fear that we are one check away from homelessness."

Rafeal Cruz, who has affordable family health insurance and a union, agreed: "Our communities need good jobs that provide health insurance. I am lucky enough to have heath insurance. Every family should have what I do."

Industry statistics indicate that malls are trending toward becoming more closely integrated into their surrounding communities by redeveloping into "lifestyle centers," offering residential living spaces, neighborhood services like dry cleaning, and retail shops. However, the use of irresponsible service contractors who pay near poverty wages and do not provide workers with health insurance at these new developments could undermine the relationship that many mall owners are seeking to build with local communities that depend on good jobs.

According to a report by the Institute of Medicine, "having a sizeable uninsured population translates into real economic and noneconomic costs for our country, including the expenses for services uninsured people use and the costs resulting from poorer health because they often forgo needed services."

"Employers face a choice—be a leader and hire contractors who pay decent wages and provide health insurance or face increasing opposition from local community leaders unwilling to tolerate the economic and social impact that poverty level jobs wreak on our communities," said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, secretary-treasurer of The Partnership for Working Families, a national organization devoted to ensuring that working families and communities truly benefit from economic development.


Close to 95 percent of malls in the United States contract out services like cleaning and security to subcontractors. There are approximately 45,000 janitors and security officers who do not receive health insurance from their mall contractors .

More than 60 percent of retail workers do not receive health insurance from their contractors.
Simon Property Group (SPG) is the largest publicly traded retail real estate company in North America with a total market capitalization of approximately $42 billion. SPG currently owns or is interested in 285 properties in 39 states in addition to Puerto Rico.

Latino workers are hardest hit by the health care crisis and have the highest uninsured rates. Thirty-two percent of Latinos living in the United States are uninsured. Ten million of the 13 million uninsured Latinos are in working families. In 2002, 20 percent of Latino children were uninsured compared with 9 percent of black children and 7 percent of white children. More than one in five citizen children in low-income mixed-status families remained uninsured in 2002—a rate 74 percent higher than that of children with citizen parents.

Speech on Campus After 9/11: Less Free Than It Used To Be?

The following article, by Jennifer Van Bergen, can be read in its entirety at FindLaw. The piece discusses UM, but also many other campuses.

Universities have traditionally been places where debate and the free exchange of ideas have been welcomed. But after 9/11, that may be changing - as some recent, troubling incidents suggest.

In this column, I'll survey some recent incidents suggesting free speech on campus is in peril, and discuss the extent to which the First Amendment protects student and faculty speech

Cracking Down on Student Demonstrators and Controversial Student Speech

Recently, students at the University of Miami (a private school, but one with a stated policy of fostering free speech) demonstrated alongside striking maintenance workers to show solidarity. Now, they face the threat of disciplinary charges.

These students received "administrative subpoenas" to appear before a school official, and were told they faced possible major disciplinary action on grounds of "disorderly conduct" and failure to comply with a school order. But instead of charging the students, the official asked them to look at pictures and identify others who participated in the strike activities.

Attorneys for the students allege that the school is trying to intimidate the students and is infringing on their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Some compared the university's actions to those used by Senator McCarthy, who brought citizens before Congress to testify against their alleged communist associates. [cont'd]

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Commencement Anxieties

After all the worrying about what, if anything, might disrupt our Commencement here at UM - and did we say that at the Law School ceremony, 60-70% of the faculty present were sporting "Support the Students" buttons? - we thought people might be interested in other Commencement-related student activism.

There's Jean Rohe at the New School in NYC laying into John McCain's pro-war stance.

At Boston College, protests greeted Commencement speaker Condoleeza Rice. One professor, Steve Almond, quit in protest.

A Pre-Emptive Strike in the Class War

The Wall Street Journal (May 19) reports that the anti-union group Center for Union Facts has launched "what may be the first TV commercial designed to disparage the labor movement as a whole." The ad ran on Fox and on various local stations earlier this month and will run again in the summer. The ad was financed by $3 million raised from undisclosed companies, foundations and individuals.

The man behind this, the head of Center for Union Facts, is Richard Berman. The Center for Media and Democracy says "Rick Berman is a right-wing lobbyist who has built a lucrative career establishing industry-funded front groups including, the Center for Consumer Freedom, the Employment Policies Institute, the Employment Roundtable and Berman specializes in personal attacks, smear tactics and playing loose with the facts. He has raised millions of dollars from tobacco, booze, biotech, fast food, grocery and other businesses eager to pay Berman to do their dirty work." According to the Wall Street Journal "Mr. Berman has helped design several similar advocacy-ad campaigns, including efforts critical of animal-rights activists and Greenpeace."

A good discussion of the Center for Union Facts can be found here. According to this source, the facts listed by the Center for Union Facts are true. "The problem is, the information is provided entirely without context or any explanation which would present the unions in other than a negative light... [I]t characterizes unions based on the actions of a few, as though all business could be understood in the light of Enron."

Poetry Corner

Rob Rosen dropped off a huge packet of labor-related poetry. We thought we'd share some occasionally. Here is our first offering, by Mary Fell (b.1947).

Picket Line in Autumn

This face getting brown
as morning falls
just ripe out of the sky --
a change from last night's
cold, warm gloves and
frost poured into
these empty coffee cups --

you've never been so much
in the world as now,
spending all daylight
and all night too outdoors,
going in circles like the world does,
though sometimes it seems
standing still, getting nowhere --

except you know your tired feet
are turning the earth
and someday the sun
will give itself up to you,
the leaves surrender --
you know they will, if
you keep on walking long enough.

Flyering at Sunset Mall Today

Come help hand out flyers in support of the UNICCO workers at Sunset Mall this afternoon, Tuesday May 23rd.

Meet at Wendy's on the corner of Red Rd and US1 at 3.30pm.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Wanted: Communications Specialist at SEIU Local 11, Miami

we are glad to pass on this SEIU job ad

Do you want to improve the lives of working people?

We are looking for someone with 5 years communications and media experience to help us develop and implement the comprehensive communication strategy needed for an historic effort to improve the conditions of working people in South Florida.

Responsibilities: Assist in the development of a comprehensive communications strategy for progressive, growing labor union in Florida. Conduct all media work including taking press calls, developing media messages related to campaigns, doing media outreach, and pitching stories. Responsibilities also include working with staff to write and produce flyers, brochures, print and radio ads, and other communication pieces.

  • Excellent writing skills

  • Ability to write quickly, clearly and concisely

  • Ability to do basic layout on the computer

  • Ability to meet deadlines

  • Strong commitment to improving the lives of working people

  • Creative, strategic thinker

  • Ability and willingness to work in fast-paced environment

  • Bi-lingual Spanish/English strongly preferred

Salary and benefits: Salary dependent on experience and qualifications. Full health and dental, paid vacation and sick time.

To apply: Send cover letter, resume and writing samples to Andrew McDonald, SEIU

Sunday, May 21, 2006

New Website Highlights Low-Wage Workers at Malls

Taken from the new website

Unsafe working conditions, poverty-level wages of mall workers initial focus of new effort spotlighting larger role of shopping malls in our communities

Washington, DC – Beyond the sales, the stores, and the perfume samples, what is the larger role that malls play in our communities? That’s the central question behind a new website effort to go “Inside Malls.” spotlights dangerous working conditions that often put mall workers at risk and the low wages and lack of access to health benefits that leave many janitors, security officers, and other service workers struggling to make ends meet. The website is sponsored by the nation’s largest union, SEIU (Service Employees International Union), which has united more of these types of workers than any other union...

Workers at Simon malls in a number of cities are working with SEIU to address working conditions and improve their lives. Contract workers employed to provide security and cleaning services in malls in Miami, Boston, Indianapolis, San Diego, and other cities are calling attention to health and safety concerns, poor employment standards, and other community issues related to malls and shopping centers.

“I’ve been asking my supervisor for protective boots. The machine that I work with hurts my legs regularly and I also work with acids that damage my legs. They gave me protective gear a long time ago but now the suit is useless and the boots cause me to slip because they are worn down,” said Marzio Moreno Silva, a janitor at the Shops at Sunset Place Mall in Miami, another Simon mall. “I have asked many times—but I never get an answer.” [cont'd]

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Teach-In Available

On Wednesday April 5th, a teach-in was held at the University of Miami to provide context for the janitors' strike that was occurring at that time. A recording of the event is now available as a zipped MP3 file, which you can download here.

Although aimed in the first instance at what was happening at UM, the material covered by the speakers is of general interest and in many cases will apply to other labor situations in the country. The event includes four presentations of about 15 minutes each.

The first is from Professor Robin Bachin (UM, History). She discusses some labor history, starting with the Haymarket Massacre of 1886, touching on the "Bread and Roses" strike in Lowell, Massachusetts, and ending with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.

Professor Ken Casebeer (UM, Law) then gives a lawyer's summary of the provisions of the NLRA, detailing the rights it provides to workers, the methods of unionization it allows for, and such notions as 'gating,' 'secondary boycotts,' 'co-employers,' and 'card check.'

Professor Elizabeth Aranda (UM, Sociology) discusses the nature and the social conditions of the workforce that typically seeks unionization. In today's world, and especially in Miami, they are often immigrants who must deal not only with poverty but with marginalization that derives from their immigrant status. Professor Aranda has conducted research with the workers on strike, and others in similar positions, and reports some what they themselves have to say.

Finally, Professor Bruce Nissen (FIU, Center for Labor Research and Studies) reports on his research on living wage ordinances. The differences in people's lives made by earning at least a living wage are enormous and, contrary to what you might expect, because paying a living wage can actually save an employer money by creating a more loyal and stable workforce, living wage ordinances have almost no negative economic effect on anyone.

After their presentations, the panelists engage in discussion with the audience for about an hour. The whole event is moderated by Professor Evelina Galang (UM, English).

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

UNICCO Workers at Sunset Mall Begin to Organize

The SEIU is organizing the UNICCO workers employed by the largest regional mall operator in the US: Simon Property Group. The Simons are a family out of Indianapolis. They own and operate most malls in South Florida.

This Wednesday, May 17th, at 3:30 some mall workers from Sunset Mall, just near UM campus, are meeting at the Wendy's next to the mall (at the corner of Red Rd and US1) to present a letter to their mall manager. They are hopeful of support from community folks who might have an hour free to come to this meeting.

From the National Catholic Reporter

Backed by church, janitors push for union


A two-month labor dispute involving nearly 100 University of Miami janitors striking for higher wages, safer working conditions and a fair unionization process was settled in early May. The Miami archdiocese had played a major role in resolving the dispute, with local clergy, archdiocesan social justice organizations, and Auxiliary Bishop Felipe Estévez all calling on the university to pressure its cleaning contractor to meet the workers’ demands and bring and end to the conflict, which began on Ash Wednesday and included a 16-day hunger strike by 10 janitors and five students.

“The Catholic community got involved,” said Anthony Vinciguerra, director of the Center for Justice and Peace at the archdiocese’s St. Thomas University, “because the issue of low-income workers gets at one of the core challenges in Catholic social teaching, which is, ‘How do we treat the most poor and vulnerable in our society?’ ” [cont'd in first comment]

Monday, May 15, 2006

Coca Cola's Anti-Union Abuse in Haiti: You Can Help

When Donna Shalala was in Haiti, members of the Haitian workers' organization Batay Ouvriye presented her with a petition on behalf of the UNICCO workers here at UM (some of whom are Haitian themselves). Now they are asking for some help in return. Write an e-mail (or call, or write a regular letter) to the management of La Couronne Brewery - Coca Cola Haiti and ask them to stop their anti-union activities, to reinstate a fired worker with backpay, and to negotiate with the union (exactly, in fact, what was being asked of UNICCO). Contact details for the manager of the La Couronne, and a sample letter, are given at the bottom of this post. Please copy your email to Batay Ouvriye (e-mail address below as well). Here is their appeal.

N.B. The text is a bit long, but its tone so passionate and moving that we didn't feel like editing it. The Nation magazione has just published a damning piece about the exploitative labor practices and criminal human rights violations of the Coca Cola Company. You can read it

After several months of attempted negotiations, the Batay Ouvriye May First Union Federation and the La Couronne–Northern Branch Labor Union find themselves in a situation in which, over 6 months after the first note we issued in November 2005, we are forced to jump to new levels and publicly denounce the La Couronne Brewery – Coca-Cola Haiti company. We are now, consequently, raising our voices to launch an APPEAL TO SOLIDARITY to all concerned progressives in Haiti and the entire world.

The precise reason we have reached this level is that, since the beginning of this year 2006, although the owner of this company, Mr. Raymond Jaar, promised to consider the workers’ demands and answer positively to several points they had laid down last December, at present, after several anti-union acts, Jaar has categorically cut all contact with us and even refused to meet with representatives of our union organization. Although the workers of this company’s Northern branch have stood up all together several times, with work stoppages and legal strikes, not only has management ignored them, but it even undertook anti-union dismissals that have antagonized all the workers.


Wages, at the Brewery, are catastrophic! The bosses profit of the workers to the maximum, making them toil at minimal cost. Even the watchmen at the gate, called warehousemen by the company, make 100 gourdes a day (US $2.50) for twelve hours of work. Overtime isn’t paid, not to mention in the way it is stipulated by the law, that is 1.5 times regular wages. The bosses steal 4 hours extra from these workers daily! For those lifting the soft drink cases, it’s even worse. They earn a “base wage” of 50 gourdes per day ($1.25!!!), which is outright ILLEGAL. The days in which the workers are unable to work, such as if the trucks are out of order or if their drivers are unable to come to work due to illness or so on… this 50 gourde salary is all they receive, so: less than the 70 gourde minimum wage! The law is however quite clear: the base wage is the wage, all other forms are incentives and should be added upon it, by no means may they count as the fixed wage! Beyond the ‘base wage’, now, a supposed commission on sales is added. For the workers, the base wage is truly their wage – the commission is in the bosses’ advantage alone. Because on each case of 24 pops sold, the workers make 3 cents of a gourde ($0.00075)!!! That is, 300 gourdes ($7.50) for each thousand cases sold. When sales are good, this thousand cases can sell over three days – but in other periods, they may take a week to be sold. If we take an average of 60 gourdes added upon the daily wages, this results in a measly daily income of 110 gourdes ($2.75), especially considering the hardships the La Couronne Brewery – Coca-Cola Haiti workers undergo!!!

Broken bottles… are the responsibility of the workers! If a driver is ticketed trying to deliver the merchandise in small roads, full of holes… it’s his business! Workers work on Saturdays, without being paid the Sunday! There are no holidays at La Couronne Brewery – Coca-Cola Haiti. Even the 15 day sickness leave isn’t respected! And as we said overtime hours aren’t paid. Money is taken from the workers salaries to pay the State pension and sickness insurances, without the workers ever knowing anything of where these sums go, nor what they serve them.

Firings are legion, without explanation. The northern branch’s main demand today is the rehiring with back pay of their fellow worker, Philome Cemerant, the union secretary, a serious worker all respected and who was fired right after the union was established at the end of 2005, under a lousy pretext: “With this letter, we confirm that you are no longer a member of the La Couronne Brewery since November 5th for having refused to obey to the indications, orders and instructions of the North Distribution Center’s Director”. Even the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor answered La Couronne saying:

“The Labor Administration of the Northern Regional Bureau of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor salutes you… and profits of the occasion to recommend Cemerant Philomé to your well-meaning attention… The Ministry has a role of protection and employment promotion, but especially of encouraging parties to sit around the table of negotiations in view of reconciliation. This is why we carried out an inspection visit at the La Couronne Brewery last Nov. 8th to avoid an open, serious conflict within this institution. We will agree with you that, once named, the employee may be fired. You’ll agree with us as well that erring is human since Mr. Seraphin and Mentor, representatives of the Brewery in the North, said and we’ll quote “Cemerant Philomé, who worked with the company since 4 years and 3 months, was a good employee and a sudden change took place in the past few months.’Thus the Labor Administration would like to request, if possible, that this employee be returned to his job, with excuses”.

The Philomé Cémérant case isn’t isolated. Last year, the company fired and ordered the arbitrary arrest of Gérard Petit-Frère who spent over two months in jail and was freed without ever even being judged.

Let’s recall the Port-au-Prince La Couronne Workers’ Committee’s outcry already in 2001:

“Drinking Couronne soft drinks is sweet, but they’re made through terrible exploitation, with outright illegal practices. And the bourgeois who own LA COURONNE enjoy perfect impunity. We’re asking what can workers do with 50 gourdes a day, especially when they have to work 12-hour shifts? Let’s have a look: Workers have to eat on credit. If they are to feel they’ve eaten, they should eat 3 small plates of food, so, 3 times 15 gourdes. They can’t! In the morning, they often have to take a small spaghetti plate at 15 gourdes with a 5 gourde juice. If they can’t afford it, then they have a small 5 gourde patty and a juice, sometimes they’ll have a soft drink instead in the morning. Adding upon this, they spend at least 6 gourdes of transportation. Since they’re working 12 hours, they have to support, but they just forget about it. What’s left? In the conditions in which workers spend less, they’ll be left with 14 gourdes if they have a patty in the morning; they’ll be left with 4 gourdes if they have spaghetti. This is how they reproduce themselves in order to return to being exploited tomorrow morning. But that’s not all. Considering wages, there are regular days salaries and Sunday or holidays salaries. Here again, the La Couronne Brewery is ILLEGAL. It pays no heed to the law: the workers are paid all days as if they were normal days. Workers aren’t paid according to the Labor Legislation. Often major travel is needed for the work. This is particularly true when the workers are delivering soft drinks in areas outside of the Port-au-Prince region. In these cases, wages are maintained as usual – the workers often are unable to eat. They sleep in the woods… Sometimes the drivers receive expenses fees. But this sum is 50 gourdes for two people. So the situation is very serious in these cases. Generally, the workers toil 6 days on seven. But workers are often forced to come to work on Sundays and holidays too, as necessary. And it’s the same 50 gourdes that are paid without taking into account the fact they’re working six days and the seventh should consequently be paid, and that holidays should be calculated above it all.”


We claim Philomé Cémérant’s return to work without delay, with all the backpay the company owes him. We demand too a wages adjustment for the Brewery’s workers, correct respect and proper work conditions for all the workers, especially respect of union rights.

And we’re informing that we see clearly through the complicity of Coca-Cola International in this situation. They are the ones who have persecuted union leaders in Columbia, even killings having been recorded, and they’ve financed death squads ( They are the ones aware students of the United States are working to bar on university campuses, because of their workers’ abuses throughout the world. This company has appropriated and deviated the people’s water in India, so that local communities have stood up against them. Already, last February, the UITA, the International Union of Food Workers, called out upon Coca-Cola International, concerning its treatment of Coca-Cola Haiti workers.

Comrade Workers, Progressives – The Peoples’ Camp In General!
This call is for us to say that Raymond JAAR’s abuses, as well as those of the Coca-Cola Company in Haiti, are ENOUGH! Jaar thinks he owns the country, but change is occurring. We can’t continue tolerating these shameful despicable miseries these millionaires want to impose upon us, nor the impunity they are imposing on us. That’s why we’re asking for all of us to denounce these acts on the radio and the national and international press, and also to write Jaar to inform him of how we are against his behavior. The way to contact him is by writing or phoning him as follows:

Brasserie de La Couronne, S.A.
Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Haïti
P.O. Box 1477, Port-au-Prince, Haïti
Phones : (509) 250-4264 / 250-7215 / 250-7225
Fax : (509) 250-0212
E-mail : /

Here is an example of a letter we can send to him – just copy it and paste in an email addressed to

Mr. Raymond JAAR
CEO Brasserie de La Couronne S.A.
Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Haïti
P.O. Box 1477, Port-au-Prince, Haïti

Mr. Jaar,

I’ve been informed of your company’s major abuses against workers’ rights, particularly the illegal 50 gourd/day salary and anti-union abuses. You should know, Mr. Jaar, that this type of illegal practices go against the essential human rights of all individuals, and that they will not be able to continue in Haiti and the world. This is why I am asking you most urgently to adopt the necessary measures to rectify the situation at the La Couronne Brewery – Coca-Cola Haiti. The workers’ base salary needs to correctly adjusted and Philomé Cémérant should be rehired without delay, with backpay and a constructive dialogue needs to be engaged with the workers' union.
With the hope you will adopt these measures in the spirit of social advancement within Haiti,

___________________ (Signature)

Cc : Batay Ouvriye, BP 13326, Delmas, Haïti –

Sunday, May 14, 2006

stand up for what you believe

At the Arts and Sciences commencement, President Donna Shalala said in her closing comments: "Make your mark boldly. ... Don't be afraid to stand up for what you believe and to support others who do likewise." Maybe the STAND students under investigation and their lawyers should make the case that they were just following President Shalala's instructions, ante literam.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the students that "To run from risk is to run from life." One of life's greatest challenges is "the use we make of the time we have." "Many have the intention of acting on bold plans," but wait until they graduate, pay off the mortgage, and keep waiting until it's too late. She encouraged students not to wait, to dedicate themselves to freedom and human rights, and to use their gifts "to help, heal and teach." Isn't Albright's advice exactly what the students under threat of disciplinary action have done?

Tanya Aquino and Amancio Paradela (the latter is subject to disciplinary action; the former has not received a summons but was one of STAND leaders and a student hunger striker) walked. Amancio, bless him, hugged Donna Shalala.

(You can hear all the commencement speeches and see, among other things, Amancio hug President Shalala in the webcasts provided here).

Amancio, holding hunger striking janitor Elsa Rodriguez, on the day after UNICCO and the SEIU settled, handing the janitors a resounding victory.

Friday, May 12, 2006

A Bittersweet Graduation Day

A powerful letter sent by a member of the UM faculty to some of the editors of this blog. The letter is slightly edited and the name of its author is withheld for confidentiality reasons. Thank you to the writer for allowing us to post this on picketline.

The immigrant protests of last week have taught many of us much about the power of collective action. The trends of late in this country (e.g. wanting to turn undocumented immigrants into felons; trying to strike from the Voting Rights Act the provision that allows for bilingual ballots; the list is endless) show that the only way to get our leaders to hear the voices of the powerless is to gather and expresses ourselves collectively.

For those graduating [on May 12 at the University of Miami], they have much to be proud of and should celebrate this momentous occasion. However, not all students might be allowed to enjoy this kind of event in the future. That's because a group of students who supported the striking janitors this semester are being threatened with charges of expulsion for their peaceful protests. Inevitably, this sends the message to future student activists to keep their mouths shut. If they don't, they may join the "blacklist" of student "agitators" (as UM would call them).

As a social scientist, many of my classes draw attention to the plight of the powerless and leave students wondering, how do we bring about social change? Never have I witnessed what I did this semester: a group of students took their educations a step further by not just feeling bad about the poverty-wages of janitors, but actually aligning with them to get their voices heard. In my view, these students have learned. They should get full honors when graduating. They took the knowledge that they have acquired in the classroom outside of the ivory tower and selflessly put it to use. Yet, how is the university administration rewarding them? With the threat of expulsion. And what is the administration's message to the community supporting them? A full-page ad in the Miami Herald the day before graduation discouraging any sympathizer from expressing their solidarity.

I think we faculty can learn a lot from our students. Among these lessons, I've learned that courage is contagious. I also have been reminded that we should practice what we preach. What good am I as an educator if I can't learn this from my students? What good is a university as a place of higher learning when the administration admonishes those who try to live out what they have learned?

To the graduating students and their families, I express my wholehearted congratulations. To the university administration, I hope you will listen to the not-so-powerful in the community and cease your attempts to squelch free speech.

Changes at the NLRB?

Here's a post from the blog Unbossed, dated May 6, 2006:

There are some interesting new developments at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in the past week. Interesting because they seem to be an attempt to respond to key criticisms of the way the NLRB has handled representation elections. Those criticisms have been that NLRB elections do not provide workers with free and fair elections.

The Ronald Mesiburg, new NLRB General Counsel, gave a major speech that lays out the initiatives in a couple of new directives the the NLRB Regional Offices. In them he said:

An important priority during my term as General Counsel will be to ensure (1) that employees have freedom of choice based on a timely opportunity to vote in Board-conducted elections in an uncoerced atmosphere and (2) that their decision in an election is protected by this Agency. [Cont'd]

In a comment, the poster gives details from a Bureau of National Affairs story concerning NLRB elections:

An interesting story out on NLRB elections this morning from BNA (subscription only). BNA has an analysis of NLRB elections which they will sell for $95. The BNA story summarizes some of the statistics from that report. Union won a higher percentage of NLRB elections last year - 61.5% compared with 58.4 % the prior year. [cont'd]

Support the Students

Feel free to download and display.

Excerpt from a Letter from Professor Roger Kanet to President Shalala Concerning Disciplinary Action Against Students

I will not raise the issues associated with questions of free speech and of "acting on one's convictions." Let me merely note that, if Provost LeBlanc and you are serious about upgrading the academic quality of future classes of UM undergraduates, the number of students able and willing to think for themselves is likely to increase. What happens now with regard to the students under "indictment" will set the tone for the future and, no doubt, influence the decisions of precisely some of those potential future students

The students have now had the possibility of draconian measures hanging over their heads for more than a month. I recognize that the university has procedures for dealing with them. However, both of us know that flexibility exists for handling issues of this type and that ultimately, as President of the University of Miami, you can influence those procedures. I sincerely hope that you live up to the principles implied in your call to the graduates to act on their convictions.

Letter from Professor Hugh Thomas to UM Faculty Concerning Disciplinary Action Against the Students

Dear Colleagues,

Many of you will have seen yesterday’s advertisement in the Miami Herald condemning a planned protest of today’s graduation. Although I am a strong supporter of unionization efforts and of the students who have supported it, I was never in favor of the protest, partly for some of the reasons the ad stated. I was relieved to learn yesterday that the protest had been cancelled at the request of the students whom it was intended to support. Nevertheless, this extremely expensive advertisement seems to me to form part of a troubling effort on the part of the administration to intimidate student attempts to support the unionization effort.

Since the last week of April, approximately 20 students received Official Notices to appear before Dean Singleton. The notices indicated that they were being investigated for “major violations” (a technical term) which could possibly lead to suspension or expulsion. When union representatives asked for amnesty for the students as part of the negotiated settlement on May 1, they were told that was not on the table. When the students appeared before Dean Singleton, each of them represented by a lawyer working pro bono, they were advised that the charges related to violations of university rules on disorderly conduct and failure to comply with the university’s requests or orders. They were also asked to identify pictures of themselves or others in pictures of demonstrations. On the advice of their attorneys they said nothing. A few days ago, the attorneys representing the students asked for a meeting with President Shalala. Their request was rebuffed and they were referred to a private law firm hired by the university.

Many of the students involved are members of STAND, the same group that President Shalala praised in a letter for telling “outside agitators” they were not welcome on campus. This letter came out around the same time the administration banned STAND from holding events on campus. At the last faculty senate meeting, in reference to the charges against the students, President Shalala stated that they were not about free speech. I wonder. Peaceful protests, such as the one called today in support of the students, are an expression of free speech, whatever one may think of the causes they support. A peaceful protest counts as free speech evenif one doubts the propriety of holding it during a festive celebration such as graduation. I have no doubt that the students opposing the protest in yesterday’s Herald Advertisement were freely expressing their own understandable views. I doubt, however, that they organized and paid for the ad; the Miami Herald apparently charges $11,466 for such an ad for not-for-profit institutions. Although I opposed demonstrating on the day of graduation in the first place, I can’t avoid the suspicion that the administration was employing considerable resources to try to bully those who disagree with it by a very public condemnation of the protest that did not mention at all what the protest was about. At the graduate convocation, yesterday, President Shalala urged students to act on their convictions. One of my faculty colleagues who was there commented that “She didn’t add: And if I disagree with you, I’ll threaten you with suspension or expulsion.”

The processes against the students remain in progress. Since at this point the charges remain quite nebulous, it is hard to respond to them, and of course the administration will not discuss ongoing investigations, which in the abstract is a reasonable enough stance. What some of us fear, however, is that the administration is waiting until everyone goes away for the summer in order to lower the hammer at a time when people can hardly react. Suspending or expelling activist students would certainly have a chilling effect on student activism and free speech in the future. At this point, I would simply like to ask all of you on the faculty to keep an eye on this issue and to make sure that the administration treats our students fairly. Hopefully, it will do so, but as a faculty we have a responsibility not just to hope, but make sure.

Hugh Thomas
Department of History

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Rally tomorrow in support of UM students postponed indefinitely

At the request of the students involved, a rally planned by community activists for tomorrow, May 12th to support UM students under threat of disciplinary action by the university has been postponed indefinitely.

Information pertaining to the students' cases will be posted here as it becomes available.

Miami Mothers Urge Dole Fresh Flowers to Keep its Promises on Mother's Day

On Friday, May 12th at noon, an alliance of mothers, faith leaders and community members will rally in front of Dole Fresh Flowers headquarters at 10055 NW 12th Street in MIAMI to urge the company to keep its promise to negotiate with flower workers in Colombia, most of whom are women and face dangerous working conditions every day.

Backed by a wall of paper flowers representing the 700 workers at the Dole-owned Splendor plantation in Colombia, a delegation of local mothers will present a Mother's Day card to the company in support of the women flower workers, 70% of whom are also mothers.

"Women in the United States can have a powerful voice on issues impacting women around the world. As consumers we have a responsibility to speak up when there is injustice," said Sophie Brion, Director of the Women's Advocacy Project, an initiative of Women's Fund of Miami-Dade. "We are joining together because our voices can change the way women are treated around the world."

In November 2004, flower workers at the Splendor plantations formed the first independent and democratic union at Dole's operations in Colombia. During the peak seasons around Valentine's and Mother's Days, employees at the Splendor plantation say they work up to 80 hours per week, without overtime pay, and earn less than $180 per month. Colombian flower workers are often terminated or do not have their job contracts renewed if they become pregnant while employed at the plantation, according to the union.

"Together, we can shine a light on the negative actions of U.S.-based companies. On May 12th we will raise our voices in support of Colombian flower workers' efforts to win fair wages, workplace safety, and the right to know that getting pregnant does not mean getting fired. These are basic rights that any employee should have," said Carolina Delgado, membership director of South Florida Jobs with Justice.

To date, Dole Fresh Flowers denies any wrong-doing in Colombia, according to the union, and despite a September 2005 commitment to negotiate with union representatives, no progress has been made to consider an election by workers to determine union representation. Miami-based Dole Fresh Flowers is the largest employer of flower workers and owns 20% of the Colombian flower industry.

The rally is organized by a coalition of groups consisting of South Florida Jobs with Justice, Unite for Dignity and Women's Fund of Miami-Dade-Women's Advocacy Project and is endorsed by International Labor Rights Fund.

South Florida Jobs with Justice is a non-profit coalition of nearly 40 academic, worker and religious organizations and over 4,500 individual members who strive to improve the rights of working families. Jobs with Justice uses public education and persuasion to assist workers in the South Florida region.

Unite for Dignity is an immigrant workers' rights organization building new leaders to fight for improved conditions in workplaces and community in South Florida.

Women's Fund of Miami-Dade is a catalyst for social change, creating a community where all women and girls reach their full potential. The Fund's Women's Advocacy Project works to amplify the voices of women and girls in Miami-Dade, particularly immigrant women, and those who are survivors of domestic violence.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

This is what NLRB elections mean

An article from today's New York Times:

Court Rules Pork Processor Broke Law in Fighting Union
Published: May 10, 2006

Nearly nine years after a unionization drive failed, a federal appeals court has ruled that the Smithfield Packing Company repeatedly broke the law in battling unionization at its giant pork-processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C.

In a decision released on Monday, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a broad cease-and-desist order that the National Labor Relations Board issued against Smithfield in 2004 in response to complaints by the United Food and Commercial Workers. The union accused Smithfield of illegally skewing a 1997 election by intimidating and firing workers.

Concluding that Smithfield had engaged in "intense and widespread coercion," the appeals court upheld the labor board's ruling that one worker was improperly coerced when he was ordered to stamp hogs with a "Vote No" stamp.
The appeals court ordered Smithfield to reinstate four fired workers, one of whom was beaten by the plant's police the day of the election. The court concurred with the labor board's findings that Smithfield's managers were not credible when they insisted that the four workers were fired for reasons other than their support for the union.
The circuit court noted that Smithfield had illegally confiscated union materials, spied on workers' union activities, threatened to fire workers who voted for the union, and threatened to freeze wages and shut the plant if the employees unionized. The Smithfield plant has 5,500 employees and is the world's largest pork-processing facility.

The union, which has complained about how long the litigation has taken, is continuing organizing efforts at the plant, but is not seeking an election. It lost the 1997 election 1,910 to 1,107.

Gene Bruskin, the director of the unionization drive, said, "It's atrocious that the courts and the N.L.R.B. have taken this long and that Smithfield can get off the hook for this long when it has shown such gross disregard for the laws of the land."

Smithfield voiced disappointment, saying it was considering an appeal to the Supreme Court. Dennis Pittman, Smithfield's director of human resources, said, "We are proud of our high employee morale, and we are anxious to put this issue behind us."

In a separate case, the labor board ruled last week that Smithfield and QSI, the cleaning contractor in Tar Heel, had assaulted and illegally fired several immigrants who staged a walkout in November 2003 to protest the firing of two supervisors. Smithfield said it would appeal.

Student journalists on the strike

Students in Professor Sallie Hughes' "Introduction to Reporting" class at UM have produced two reports on aspects of the strike.

Starving for Justice: An In-Depth Look at the Hunger Strike

Watch the Audio Slideshow
Text: Nayda Varier-Taylor and Tina Zuric
Audio: Molly Jones
Visual: Ashley Davidson

As they enter their16th day without food, students and workers who joined a hunger strike to pressure the University of Miami and contractor Unicco Service Company to accept a particular method of unionization have captured the attention of students, faculty and the national media.

But they say they won’t stop until all of their demands are met. Until then, they will remain camped out in “Freedom City,” a tent city they created on public land under the Metro Rail just outside the University of Miami’s main entrance. [Cont'd]

Alyssa Cundari: Portrait of a Student Activist

Watch the Audio Slideshow
Text: Natalia Maldonado and Elsa Bolt
Audio: Caroline Neves
Visual: Alex Gordon

When Alyssa Cundari started her freshman year at the University of Miami, many of the faces she saw seemed familiar.

But they didn't belong to her fellow students. Overlooked by most, they were the faces of the men and women emptying trashcans and sweeping floors, many of whom are immigrants. [Cont'd]

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A respone to Michael Putney you won't read in the Herald

This op-ed by Elizabeth Aranda was declined by the Herald.

On March 28th I was outside of UM’s admissions office showing my support for the student sit-in aimed at bringing attention to the plight of striking janitors. I came upon a conversation between a colleague and a union organizer. The organizer was talking about missing her kids. Having not seen my own daughter all day, I chimed in to commiserate; I was embarrassed about complaining when I realized that she had not seen her three children in weeks. "These workers need me" is what she told them.

According to Michael Putney's column in yesterday's Herald, union organizers like this one are villains. In his words, they "exploit a group of hard-working, unsophisticated immigrant workers to achieve their own larger ambitions." The picture he paints of organizers is remarkably opposed to those I met over the past few months. I am surprised that Mr. Putney did not take the time to do more reporting on their backgrounds before he demonized them.
I met John on the first day of the strike. He is from Pittsburgh and witnessed how the steel mills in his home town were moved to less-developed countries to lower labor costs and increase profits. I'm guessing that John got involved in the labor movement because he witnessed first-hand the demise of the occupational infrastructure of his community. John believes that the only way to win rights for workers in this country is through a successful labor movement. If you talk to the other union organizers you'll find a deep commitment to this view and to social justice generally. The only difference between them and the rest of us is that they are willing to work for justice and not just wait for someone else to act. These individuals sacrifice their own personal lives to help workers attain basic human rights in the trenches of global capitalism.

Mr. Putney also underestimates the workers' intelligence and their role in this movement. Like many of us in South Florida know, if you are not a government official or community bigwig, you must be involved in a car-wreck or a crime to get in the news. Because of media closure, striking janitors are not a ratings grabber unless they are doing something unusual. Workers know this. The workers saw how a hunger strike on behalf of activist Saul Sanchez drew attention to the absurdity of deporting Cuban immigrants who touched dry, but unconnected land. The workers saw the media images of Sanchez walking through MIA's terminal to fly to Washington D.C. to meet with lawmakers to address this injustice. The workers saw how this action led to a change in the deportation order. From this perspective, surely ten hunger strikers fighting for justice would get similar results. To insinuate that every tactic used in this struggle was orchestrated by the union is simply erroneous. Moreover, it is insulting to all individuals who took an active part in this fight and overlooks the media's own role in stimulating an escalation in tactics.

Mr. Putney validates his argument by positioning himself as a former janitor. With all due respect, let's be clear about the differences: Mr. Putney was a young man putting himself through college; his union job helped him achieve his goals and become a prominent member of the community. The workers, however, are middle-aged women and men working to put food on the table, hoping to get their kids to college. Only now can they benefit from what Mr. Putney had access to when he was a janitor: decent wages, benefits, and proper grievance procedures that his union instituted at Berkeley. I doubt however, that the organizers that were responsible for getting Mr. Putney his benefits were portrayed as villains as they worked to pursue their agenda of increasing unionization in California.
Agendas exist at many levels-there are individual agendas and there are organizational agendas. At the end of the day, I would rather be supporting the agenda that will bring about the greater level of social justice for all individuals involved. But I guess that in today’s politically conservative climate we should not be surprise that union organizers are thought of as "manipulative, deceitful and dishonest..." while UM’s disingenuous claim to "neutrality" is chided gently as a "fiction." Sad to say, it is not just geography that separates Miami and Berkeley.

Message in a Bottle

A very welcome letter in today's Herald from David Bonior. I believe that, despite our best efforts, this is the first time the Herald has printed, in any format, the information about the deficiencies in NLRB elections. Better late than never.

Re Michael Putney's May 3 Other Views column, UM janitors' strike -- Shalala: 1; union: 0: The headline suggests that Putney doesn't understand why University of Miami workers walked off the job. Of course they want a better wage and some health coverage. But more than that they want something that can't be taken away or slashed a year from now, a voice at work -- a union. And now they will have a fair shot at it through a card check, the process that Unicco, the UM subcontractor involved, has agreed to all across the country.

The union recognition process for which UM and Unicco held out is an increasingly discredited procedure. The current process administered by the National Labor Relations Board is widely acknowledged to be a broken system that invites abuse. Recent research by American Rights at Work found that in the weeks leading up to an election, 30 percent of employers faced with organizing
drives fire pro-union workers, and 51 percent coerce workers into opposing unions with bribery or favoritism.

Putney referred to the janitors as ''unsophisticated immigrant workers'' and alleged that the media were somehow to blame for buying into a ''respect/justice motif.'' The disrespect is breathtaking. Seeking decent wages for honest work is not a zero-sum game where the workers gain at the contractor's expense or the university triumphs over its workers.

UM, Unicco and the janitors all deserve praise for coming together and agreeing to terms that are fair and grant the workers a voice on the job.

DAVID BONIOR, chair, American Rights at Work, Washington, D.C.

Two other items from the Herald in recent days: a great wrap-up column from Ana Menendez, reflecting on the whole struggle. And a piece from the business section discussing the future.

And this from the Coral Gables Gazette, dealing especially with the student disciplinary hearings.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


this has been long coming, considering that the events to which these pictures refer took place a whole week ago!!!! but my computer crashed, and i am the one who took the pictures, so....

... ladies and gents, enjoy these pictures and share the joy of sweet victory with the janitors, the students, the faculty, and the community who fought for justice and WON at the university of miami in the year 2006! remember you were there: you are part of history.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Rigged Elections and True Democracy in the Workplace

The following is an op-ed written by Professor Gordon Lafer for the Miami Herald. Since the Herald has not published it, we are publishing it here. Professor Lafer is at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon and is a national authority on card check and NLRB elections. He is the author of Free and Fair, a study commissioned by American Rights at Work about how NLRB elections fall short of the standards of democracy we hold dear.

Last Friday, the University of Miami paid to run an ad in the Herald attacking janitors’ call for their union to be recognized based on signed statements from a majority of workers. The janitors’ union criticizes the way workplace elections are run by the federal Labor Board; criticizing elections, the janitors’ bosses say, is un-American.

At first glance, it seems like the ad must be right. When most people here about “union elections,” they assume they run the same way as elections for Congress or the President. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

The University of Miami janitors are part of a much bigger problem. Opinion surveys show that about 40 million American workers wish they had a union in their workplace. This desire is understandable ­ since workers with unions make about 30% more than their counterparts in the same type of job. But the chances of these employees realizing their desire is very small ­ because the “election” system is so highly stacked against workers.

When employees want to form a union in their workplace, they have to go through a process that none of the Founding Fathers would recognize as democratic. Instead, almost every aspect of workplace “elections” looks more like the discredited practices of rogue regimes abroad.

The starting point of any regular election is that both sides have equal access to the list of registered voters. But in a workplace election, while management can mail anti-union propaganda to workers for months, the union doesn’t even get a list of who the workers are until a few weeks before the vote. If we had elections for Congress where one candidate had access to the voter rolls for years and the other got it only in October, none of us would call that a “free and fair” contest.

But wait, it gets worse. Within the workplace, management is free to campaign against the union to every employee, every day, throughout the day; but union organizers are completely banned from the workplace. Furthermore, management can post anti-union newsletters and posters on bulletin boards and walls throughout the workplace ­ while enforcing a ban on pro-union notices.

One of the most outrageous practices is also one of the most common: forcing employees to participate in mass anti-union campaign rallies. Under federal law, employers can require workers to attend anti-union rallies. Not only are pro-union employees not given equal time, but they can be forced to attend on condition that they not say anything or ask any questions; employees who speak up despite this ban can be fired on the spot. Management can hold these forced meetings as often as it wants, up to the day before the vote.

In most union elections, supervisors are required to have repeated one-on-one confrontations with the individuals they oversee. Here, the person who has the most direct control over hiring and firing, promotion, raises, hours and duties, tells their subordinates in no uncertain terms why a union would be bad for them. The message is clear: if you ever want a raise, or a day off to take your kid to a doctor, you better not support the union.

Even “election day” itself takes place in the workplace ­ typically decked out with anti-union propaganda ­ and under the watchful eyes of managers. In 2003, former New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman led a Republican party delegation to observe elections in Cambodia. Whitman declared that the vote was not “free and fair,” in part because government-affiliated “village chiefs [sat] outside polling stations and check[ed] off voters as they entered and exited, providing a palpable sense they were being monitored despite casting a secret ballot.” Yet workers across the U.S. are subject to just this type of intimidation whenever they seek to establish a union.

Many of the tactics used to intimidate employees are legal. However, because federal labor law contains no possibility of punitive fines, prison, or any other type of sanction, employers break the law at will. Last year, approximately 15,000 Americans were illegally fired, suspended or otherwise financially punished for trying to form a union in their workplace. If federal elections were run with the same “Wild West” lawlessness as the workplace, the 2004 election would have seen 7.5 million voters fired, demoted or fined for backing the “wrong” candidate.

An election where one party gets preferred access to the voter list, dominates communications, forces all voters to attend its rallies, and fires voters for backing the opposition, is undemocratic and unAmerican.

Recently, labor unions have worked with employers to create alternative means for forming unions, often using local clergy or elected officials to certify that a majority of workers want the union.

University managers decry any such alternatives, seeking to condemn their employees to a rigged “election” process that none of us would accept in a campaign for county dog catcher. Shame on them.

In 2002, the State Department condemned elections in the Ukraine. Among the problems our government cited were that employees were pressured to support the ruling party; university administrators told students how to vote; and the ruling party dominated the media while restricting the opposition’s access to tv and billboards. Under the system that the University is promoting, all of these tactics are legal.

Anyone who is serious about workplace democracy has to start by insisting that we have at least as high standards for American workers as we do for voters abroad.