Strike Looms at UM

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.

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5 Responses to Strike Looms at UM

  1. Sue AnnCampbell says:

    If the University was willing to pay a “living wage” to contract employees they would also have to do so for the non salaried staff workers too and at this point I don’t think they are willing to do that.

    Most “faculty assistants” make in the $22 – 25k annual range. That’s ok for a supplement to another pay check, but try feeding a family of 4 on that as a single parent. When mortgage payments in Miami average around $1000 to $1200 a month and rents are about the same that kind of money isn’t enough. On top of that add the yearly and practically manditory parking fee, the health insurance and the inadequate and expensive prescription drug coverage and the dental coverage. How about the incidentals like car payments, food and clothing? A “minor” cost increase in something here makes it difficult to make ends meet. $40 a month increase in some fee or other doesn’t seem like much, but to the average worker it’s 2 tanks of gas or half a weeks groceries.

    Yet they want us to contribute to our own retirement fund (we don’t have a 401k we can start a 402b and pay into it but with no matching funds from the university) Also they always make sure we give to the United Way to make the University look good in the community.

    People used to forego the higher wage they could get in a public rather than academic workplace because UM gave such good benefits AND allowed the worker and dependants to come to school free – tuition remission. Lately they have put restrictions on that, so that not every Master’s program is covered, and some undergrad programs are also restricted. Women who have worked here for 12 or 15 years are finding out that their children don’t qualify for tuition remission now because the admission standards have been raised so that it’s as if they were applying for full tuition academic scholarships. Kids like my son who had a 3.5 average from high school would never be accepted at UM now. The “average” GPA for incoming freshmen is a 4.0 on a weighted scale. So these women have worked for years for a benefit they can never collect on because the rules have changed and their kids can’t qualify.

    New hires have even more restrictions, having to pay a greater portion of the tuition before they are here 10 years, because the full tuition remission is not in effect until you have been working for 10 years. Before then you have to pay 1/4 of the tuition. (It used to be full tuition after 5 years.) That amount of money is even higher than what it costs to attend a state university, so why bother?

    Most faculty and administrators don’t seem bothered by that since they can afford to send their kids to school elsewhere,the tuition remission thing is just something they will occasionally use for their own benefit. But for many – or should I say MOST staff people they count on that tuition remission.

    On what UM now pays it’s not a living wage, it’s a subsistance wage for many. (just my humble opinion)

  2. Aaron says:

    For students, it may not even be if we don’t want to cross the line or not, it’s that we don’t have a choice. Or I guess, we do have a choice and that choice would be to violate our class attendance policies if professors don’t choose off-campus locations for our classes. We would be committing GPA hari-kari with the knowledge many of our classmates would cheer not only the union-breaking stance, but also their future jump in class rank. A Pyrrhic victory at best. But, since the strike date hasn’t been set (or has it?) this may give sympathetic professors and students the time to set up alternate arrangements.

  3. ab says:

    Aaron – I saw a flyer at the on-campus starbucks advertising a strike for this Friday, March 3.

  4. Steve says:

    Our janitors went on strike.

    Nobody noticed.

  5. jose says:

    Why do some staff get paid the full 8 hours work while others get pay 7.75 for the day? Why the inconsistant? Why can they just pay the full 8 hrs?

    Regarding the strike, i support it and i wish the janitorial workers the best of luck. Why do some janitorial personel make more money at the main campus while the workers at the medical campus get chunk change? (6.41Hrs) Its disgusting and hyprocritical of the university of miami to say (shala) that this is between the unicco and the union, which we know is not true. The university of miami has the will power and influence to push unicco to pay its workers better and provide medical benefits. I am pretty sure the university of miami is going to start looking for some other Janitorial company if the situation gets nasty.
    Of course, its all business and politics to keep profits up and the cost down. Its good business. Is it unethical?

    Pay low to keep profits up.

    I wonder what happend to all the money that the University of Miami is collecting? Why not invest on your employees, which are the heart and soul of the organization. That’s a thought for the committee and president shala.

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