University of Miami janitors avoid a strike
BY MICHAEL VASQUEZ
Averting another strike at the last minute, janitors and landscapers at the University of Miami struck a new labor contract Tuesday night that provides for cost-of-living increases while improving employee benefits such as sick days and vacation time.
At around 9 p.m. Tuesday, the eve of a potential janitor's strike, the Service Employees International Union, which represents the workers, agreed to terms with university contractor UGL Unicco Services.
The tentative three-year agreement, which still must be ratified by the workers themselves, provides a 7.5 percent wage increase over the next three years to UM's nearly 400 janitors and landscapers. The deal also improves benefits, including sick days and holidays, and increases employer contributions to the healthcare fund up to 23 percent.
For UM President Donna Shalala and other school administrators, the agreement also neutralizes an issue that has proven quite controversial in the past. In 2006, prior to forming a union, UM's cleanup workers created a national media storm by protesting their low wages and lack of health insurance through a months-long labor strike that also grew to include hunger strikes.
Earlier this week, as the expiration of the janitors' current contract grew closer, it appeared another clash over wages was imminent. On Monday, dozens of UM students and faculty participated in a rally in support of the janitors, concluding with a letter being delivered to Shalala's office.
``Students are really responsive because they have heard about this issue before,'' said UM senior Stephanie Sandhu, who participated in the rally.
Shalala played a crucial role in securing higher wages and health insurance for the workers in 2006, although for five straight years before that, she took a more hands-off approach. UM has long prided itself on the cleanliness and beauty of its lushly-landscaped Coral Gables campus.
Technically speaking, the janitors don't work for UM, they work for Unicco -- a murky arrangement that leads to disparities such as janitors earning less vacation time than is given to actual UM employees. Janitors earn two weeks of paid vacation after five years' employment, for example, while UM employees only have to put in two years to receive that perk.
As part of their demands, the janitors sought the same vacation schedule as official UM employees. They didn't achieve that, but they did make substantial gains -- qualifying for three weeks vacation after eight years instead of 10, and gaining Martin Luther King Jr. day as an additional paid holiday. Personal days were increased from three to four.
One thing workers asked for and didn't get: a 30-minute break when working outside in temperatures above 100 degrees.
Though UM doesn't directly pay its janitors, pressure from the university can significantly affect Unicco's posture in negotiating with its workers.
Publicly at least, Shalala showed no interest in wading into the thorny issue for a second time. The letter delivered to her office this week asked for a presidential statement in support of the janitors' cause, but no such statement has been made. Nor did Shalala respond to a Miami Herald request for comment relayed through a university spokeswoman.
The janitors' strike four years ago sparked a torrent of negative media coverage for UM, as media outlets across the country were drawn to the issue -- in part because Shalala, a former U.S. secretary of health and human services, is a national figure.
Though Shalala was repeatedly blamed for not doing more -- sooner -- to help the janitors, union organizers were also faulted during the months-long standoff.
The union praised this latest agreement as ``an important victory for our members and for all the working families of Miami.''