The UM Strike is Over (the Aftermath Is Not)

I’ve been very silent about the UM strike for reasons I’ll detail below, but let me start with the good news — it’s now over. Yesterday, UNICCO and the SEIU agreed to a modified, monitored, card-check and NLRB ballot. As Picketline Blog describes it, the agreement includes these terms:

  • The agreement establishes a code of conduct governing how both the employer and the union will interact with the workers during the process. Both sides agree not to interfere with workers’ decision whether or not to form a union.
  • A neutral, independent organization, the American Arbitration Association, will verify the results of the process to determine whether or not a supermajority of UNICCO janitors at the University of Miami wish to form a union.
  • Once AAA has independently verified that a supermajority of 60% of the janitors working for UNICCO have signed cards saying they want to form a union with SEIU, UNICCO has agreed to recognize (on the very same day) SEIU as the janitors’ union.
  • Janitors have until August 1, 2006 to demonstrate a supermajority.
  • The agreement covers 410 janitors working for UNICCO on the campus of the University of Miami and UM’s Jackson Memorial Hospital.
  • The striking janitors will return to work Wednesday, May 3, 2006.
  • Zoila Mursuli, the janitor union leader who had been fired by UNICCO, will be reinstated immediately. She will receive backpay for the weeks after she was fired before her co-workers went on strike.

That’s the good news.

Now some catching up on the other news, much of which is not so good.

I stopped blogging about the strike the day that the bargaining unit, whose cause I support, made a tactical decision that I found very upsetting and misguided: they decided to stage a a hunger strike. I thought, and still think, that this dispute, while serious, wasn’t the sort of exceptional issue for which a hunger strike was appropriate. I didn’t think people should be risking their lives for this, neither workers nor students — and members of both groups volunteered. To me, a hunger strike is a desperation move, something you reserve when a prisoner of an evil regime, or perhaps when trying to protest an evil national policy. Low wages and lousy health care are national problems, but UM and especially UNICCO are to some extent cogs in a larger machine that they do not control. A hunger strike seemed tactically misguided — how do you stop if the University won’t back down? — and fundamentally inappropriate. Indeed, before the end several people were hospitalized; at least one suffered a small stroke.

From the first, however, I wasn’t willing to write anything negative about people risking their health and perhaps even their lives for a cause I supported — even as, quite frankly, I thought they were basically bonkers. It didn’t seem right to attack them; yet in this I couldn’t support them.

So I got real quiet.

Meanwhile, I am very sorry to report, the University got vicious, petty, and stupid.

The vicious part was the campaign, still on-going despite this settlement of the underlying grievance, to subject eleven students to the threat of severe sanctions for their actions supporting the strikers. If not vicious then at least odd was the administration’s hardball legal tactics. In its communications to the faculty and students, the UM administration failed to articulate with any particularity what exactly it thought the SEIU was doing to disrupt our academic activities. To this day I for one am unclear as to what the administration thought was disruptive enough to justify the injunction demand. There were very successful demonstrations — but these were legitimate activity. There was a second student occupations of the Ashe building, but that didn’t seem to be an SEIU affair.

The University nonetheless got a local judge to issue an injunction against the SEIU ordering it not to disrupt us. But the major disruptions seemed to be the UM administration unilaterally locking its doors.

The petty part was well, pretty petty: the University began a campaign of small-scale harassment of the union’s supporters. Silly stuff, like running the sprinklers for hours where they were camping near the President’s office, mostly in the open, but with one or two actual tents.

Being that this is a university, the stupid part is almost as bad as the vicious part. The administration — Donna Shalala proprietor — insulted the community’s intelligence with a series of four full page ads in the Miami Herald. UM spent thousands of dollars (maybe over $200,000 in all, based on this rate card?) telling us things which if they were not lies were at least calculated to deceive.

For example, one of the ads asserted that “We Provided Health Insurance. We Have Done Our Part”; trouble was, as we all knew by then, the much-vaunted health insurance was really quite limited: The $13/month policy was for the worker alone. If you wanted to insure your children, that would be $241/month. Add a spouse, and it would rise to $493/month, which amounted to more than a third of the income of a full-time worker making the $8.50 per hour that the university was so proud of finally paying — years after the faculty requested it.

Another ad complained of “outside protesters” who were engaged in “trespass” (the ad also complained of “anarchists” although I’ve yet to meet anyone who actually saw one of these mythical creatures!). Who were these evil outside agitators who had the temerity to walk through open gates up our walks past our lovely lawns and into what until now we had all thought was a space where the public was welcome to come and contribute ideas? Why the evil trespassers were people like former Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards, and Charles Steele, the President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, David Bonior, actor Ed Asner (“Lou Grant”), and Jimmy Hoffa. Not to mention a delegation of international labor leaders and many others.

It’s a sad day when a university treats things it doesn’t want to hear as “trespass,” and we had a lot of sad days recently.

So we end the semester on mixed notes:

  • Happy that the main conflict has ended with a decent outcome;
  • Concerned about the lingering issues — not least the students facing discipline for helping the workers;
  • Happy that we don’t have to turn our backs on Shalala at graduation or take part in some other equally unpleasant and confrontational stunt;
  • Worried about the people who may have damaged their health in the hunger strike;
  • Uncertain how to feel about the rumors that Shalala is no longer on Harvard’s short list for its Presidency — presumably due to her (mis)handling of the conflict;
  • Unclear on the role played by the Board of Trustees: were they forcing Shalala’s hand or supporting her initiatives?

Between the spring strike and the fall hurricanes, this has been the worst academic year I can recall at UM. People are ground down. Ending (most of) this conflict now makes it possible to hope that the summer will allow some healing. Here’s hoping.

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3 Responses to The UM Strike is Over (the Aftermath Is Not)

  1. Brautigan says:

    I thought, and still think, that this dispute, while serious, wasn’t the sort of exceptional issue for which a hunger strike was appropriate.

    While I agree with your general point, I think (and I do mean this with all due respect) that it is difficult for some of us to understand just how desperate the lot of the average American worker is becoming. From inside those shoes, it might not seem at all “bonkers.”

    Regardless, it’s wonderful to see a few victories for Labor here and there.

  2. Tanya says:

    I understand the community’s concern over the tactical move of using a hunger strike. I would like to say though, as a student humger striker, the decision to join in solidarity with the workers in this bold move was not made without careful thought and consideration. Yes, looking back, I realize that perhaps risking my health to this degree (I was the student hospitalized) was not the BEST tactical decision…but it’s what the workers decided and we wanted to support them to the fullest degree. So I agree that the hunger strike was drastic, but I also feel it is a huge reason as to why we were able to end the conflict before the semester ended.

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