The University of Miami employs a contractor to provide janitorial and other services on campus. This of course leads to capitalism’s favorite race to the bottom, as potential suppliers compete to be the low bidder. The current winner, Unicco, achieves its status as the low-cost-provider by paying its workers as little as possible and providing almost no healthcare benefits. So far, so legal, if not necessarily very cheerful for the workers, or for the people who work around them.
Some of the Unicco workers, as is their right, decided to try to form a union. If reports are to be believed, however, Unicco decided to play hardball in response and started harassing and firing workers it thought supported the effort. That isn’t legal. It’s an unfair labor practice. And the NLRB says there is reasonable cause to believe it is happening.
The NLRB’s finding allows workers to strike against the unfair labor practice, even though they have yet to form a recognized union. As a technical legal matter, the University of Miami is not implicated here. It’s not guilty of anything (in law) other than trying to save a buck. But as a practical matter (not to mention at the moral level), this is very much the University’s problem. If the University wanted to require that its contractors pay a living wage, or provide decent medical coverage, it is fully within the University’s power to do so — at a price, of course.
And so far the University (Donna Shalala, CEO) has shown little sign of being willing to pay this price. It has, I’m told, hired a union-busting law firm to represent it.
Last Thursday, President Shalala issued a statement announcing the formation of “work group charged with conducting a thorough review of compensation and benefits accorded to all contract employees working on our campuses.” But the two-person (!) work group is chaired by a person whose sympathy to workers’ problems I personally would rate as “unusually low”. In response, on Friday, a group of professors hurriedly produced a letter expressing measured skepticism about this work group.
Which brings us to the present pass: last night, the Unicco workers voted to strike. Somewhere. Sometime.
I won’t be crossing that picket line. Which is easy for me to say, since I’m not teaching this term. Many people who are teaching will be very reluctant to cross it too, but their position is very difficult. First, there simply aren’t enough spaces in which to hold large classes in area churches or other local venues which might be willing to give us space. Second, there’s a real issue about our contractual obligations to students who don’t care about honoring the picket line, and who would be inconvenienced — sometimes substantially — by having to run around to various different off-campus sites to take classes.
I have first-hand experience of university strikes, and I know just how unpleasant they are: I went to Yale, where strikes are as regular as clockwork. Almost my entire first semester of law school was spent off-campus due to a picket line, which certainly ruined my first year, and cast a great pall over the whole experience. Two of my four professors (Tort, Civil procedure I) moved their classes off campus. One refused to do so (Contract), and those of us honoring the picket line met off-campus to listen to a taped version of his class provided to us by a sympathetic student who did attend classes. And one professor, Charles L. Black, Jr., held two sections of Con Law I: one in the classroom at the appointed hour, and one in his living room, for he believed that he had an obligation — an almost sacred trust — to teach his class at the appointed place and time, but he was not about to make anyone else cross a picket line. One more reason why I admired him tremendously.