Feb. 24, 2006
We are heartened by President Shalala’s decision to establish a working group to study the compensation and benefits issues facing the many contract employees who work on UM’s campuses. If this initiative indeed signals a genuine willingness on the Administration’s part to rethink longstanding policies that encourage outside firms to compete for UM’s contracts by paying poverty-level wages, then we applaud the change of heart and thank the President for responding in such a constructive manner to the many UM constituencies that have spoken up for the workers who make life and learning on this campus possible.
But we would have to ignore a lot of history – some of it ancient, some of it quite recent – not to sound a note of caution to those who think the UNICCO workers’ struggle for workplace justice is over. For one thing, the target of the strike vote scheduled for this weekend is the unfair labor practices alleged against UNICCO by the National Labor Relations Board, which has charged the firm with unlawfully interrogating workers about their union support; prohibiting them from talking about the union at work; forcing them to sign a statement disavowing the union; accusing them of “disloyalty” for participating in off-hours union functions; threatening reprisals against union supporters; and conducting unlawful surveillance of a union meeting. Moreover, as recently as this week, UNICCO fired one of the leading union supporters after she spoke about the union campaign to a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel, so there is reason to believe that the antiunion campaign has escalated rather than abated.
The President’s statement offered no mention of either the NLRB’s proceedings against UN ICCO or the substance of any of these allegations, let alone any suggestion that the University expects better from its campus contractors. But if the charges against UNICCO are true – and the agency of the federal government that is charged with protecting the organizing rights of American workers has found reasonable cause to believe that they are – the firm has engaged in a disgraceful campaign to thwart its workers’ organizing efforts. Should the employees vote to strike to protest this conduct, we will support their effort in every way we can that is consistent with our professional responsibilities to our students and to the University, and we urge other members of the UM community – faculty, students, administrators, and support staff – to do so as well.
The University’s own record on the issue of justice for campus contract workers is equally troubling. The UM Administration has, after all, been aware of the effects of its contracting policies at least since August 2001, when the Chronicle of Higher Education reported – to the mortification of virtually everyone in the UM community – that UM was the second lowest in janitorial pay among 195 institutions of higher learning and that we were one of only a dozen institutions that paid their custodial workers below the official Federal Poverty Wage.
For those of us who participated in the ensuing effort to persuade the University Administration to adopt a living wage policy, there is a disturbing sense of déjà vu here. Responding to criticisms from faculty, students, and other members of the University community, and to a spate of unwelcome publicity, the President at that time undertook a six-month study of compensation and benefits policies for contract workers. At the end of that process, she announced the health awareness and education initiatives outlined in yesterday's statement. That was obviously a step in the right direction, though the SEIU reports that many workers view those initiatives mostly as an opportunity to learn about treatments they can't afford and in any event as no substitute for a wage and benefit package that provides them with health care rather than merely health fairs. (We suspect that the larger South Florida community – whose taxes and charitable contributions are currently covering the lion's share of the health care costs of such low-wage workers – would readily agree.) In any event, the President also announced that the University would continue to adhere to its “market-based” approach to pay for contract workers, meaning that outside firms could continue to compete for UM contracts by paying poverty-level wages, as indeed they have. Nothing was done about those embarrassing pay levels in 2001; in 2002; in 2003; in 2004; in 2005; or indeed in 2006, until three days before the scheduled strike vote.
The timing of the working group initiative thus speaks, loudly, for itself. In the eloquent words of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, “[t]he beneficence of an employer is likely to be ephemeral if prompted by a threat of unionization which is subsequently removed.” The same is surely true of beneficence that is also prompted by a community outcry in support of its workers’ protests, and so we urge all members of that community to continue the outcry until the Administration commits itself to a living wage policy for all workers – UM as well as contract employees – who serve this University.
We would have more confidence in the likely results of this second round of study and consultation if the working group the President established had broader representation from the University community and in particular from student and faculty groups that have been critical of the contracting policies that the President is now willing to reconsider. And we would have more confidence still if those most directly affected had a voice in the decisionmaking process. Indeed, a voice in the process is exactly what the UNICCO workers are seeking through their unionization effort, and it’s exactly what UNICCO has evidently attempted to thwart through a continuing campaign of unfair labor practices. We stand with those workers in support of their efforts to secure “a place at the table” when decisions are made about their working lives, and we urge other members of the University community to stand with them as well.
/s/David Abraham, Law