University of Miami Justice for Janitors campaign
The University of Miami Justice for Janitors campaign was a nine-week strike lasting from February 28 to May 3, 2006. It featured striking custodial workers at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida challenging UNICCO (a company that provides maintenance, facility management, and cleaning and janitorial services for industrial, office, retail, and education facilities). The work action focused on achieving a living wage, affordable health insurance, and better working conditions for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) member employees.
Prior to the strike at UM, a Boston-based company, UNICCO (now UGL Limited), had already drawn negative attention for some of its business practices. From 1999-2001, four deaths and one serious injury of UNICCO employees were reported in separate incidents, and in 2003, two employees died in an incident at a workplace in Boston. Investigations of these incidents indicated that UNICCO was in violation of numerous workplace standards and resulted in the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health placing UNICCO on its “Workplace Health and Safety Dirty Dozen Report.” A salary survey for 1999-2000 conducted by the Chronicle for Higher Education found UM's custodial workers to be the second lowest in pay ($13,120/year) and UM to be one of only 12 universities among the 195 surveyed whose custodial workers' wages did not exceed the U.S. federal poverty line.
David Liberman, the senior vice president for business and finance at UM at the time, stated, “we don’t raise any questions about their business…[and] allow them to pay whatever they want to pay as long as they can recruit and retain workers, and still make a buck at the end of the day.”
In response to this report, the UM Faculty Senate began addressing the issue in October 2001. In two separate resolutions, passed on October 24 and December 12 of that year, the faculty senate recommended to UM President Donna Shalala that the university needed to change its policies for companies which provided contracted labor. These recommendations went unheeded at the time.
Formal organization of UM janitorial workers by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began to take place in February 2005. The SEIU had been a primary organizer of the "Justice for Janitors" campaign. The SEIU sought the help of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice (SFIWJ) early in its campaign in Florida, which signaled the start of an important partnership between the movement and religious organizations. During the fall of 2005, an ally was found in the group, Students Toward a New Democracy (STAND), which attempted to “create an activist culture in an historically apathetic student body.” In order to improve STAND’s capabilities, SEIU brought in students from Harvard (who had previously conducted a successful three-week living wage campaign), and students from Georgetown University to help teach organizational tactics to UM students.
Strike and Protests
Following their majority approving an unfair labor practice strike against UNICCO on February 26, 2006, the janitors officially went on strike. In order to show solidarity with the striking workers, over one hundred UM professors and faculty held classes off campus in venues such as churches, houses, and even a park so as to not interfere with the campaign’s picketing. Out of the 200 UM janitors, SEIU reported that approximately half participated in the strike from the beginning. UNICCO, however, disputed these claims, asserting that SEIU was exaggerating the numbers, and that 148 out of the 206 workers had reported for work the previous day. At the same time the SEIU announced that a ten-day strike notice had been issued to the UM medical school, with the potential of adding 200 janitors to the work action.
On March 28, members of the campaign launched a two-pronged action in an attempt to garner media attention. First, a group of seventeen people (consisting of union members, students, clergy, and community members) formed a human chain across US Route 1 outside of the UM campus, blocking traffic. Just as these seventeen people were arrested, another group (consisting of seventeen students and the campus chaplain) occupied the Ashe Building which housed the UM admissions office. After a thirteen-hour occupation, Shalala agreed to have a meeting with the students, workers, and the SEIU.
Fasting in Freedom Village
Beginning April 5, the campaign featured hunger strikes and fasting (which took place in "Freedom Village"—the name given to the campaign's base of operations). The hunger strikes began with the workers, some of whom had previously participated in hunger strikes in their previous homeland of Cuba. In addition to eight workers, seven students joined in the hunger strike. SEIU originally opposed this form of protest because of the obvious health implications involved, but as they began to support the idea of hunger strikes, they also provided nurses at Freedom Village to monitor the safety of those fasting. After more than two weeks, some people taking part in the strike were being hospitalized. Rather than ending the hunger strike altogether, leaders decided to recruit others to do the fasting (such as SEIU president Andy Stern and executive vice president Eliseo Medina). The UM custodial strike attracted national attention, including visits by several out-of-town political and labor leaders in support of the strike. Notable people such as Southern Christian Leadership Conference President John Edwards; Teamsters President James P. Hoffa; and civil rights leader Charles Steele, Jr. made visits to the campus to show support.
Resolution of strike
On May 1, 2006, it was announced that UNICCO and the SEIU had reached an agreement that an independent third party (the American Arbitration Association—AAA) would determine whether or not a super-majority of UNICCO custodians at UM wished to unionize. UNICCO had finally agreed to the use of a card check vote (as opposed to the secret ballot system they had originally lobbied for). The agreement established a code of conduct governing how both the employer and the union would interact with the workers during the process. Both sides agreed not to interfere with the workers' decision on whether or not to form a union.
SEIU secured a super-majority approval (more than 60%) from the 425 UNICCO workers at UM and UM's Jackson Memorial Hospital to unionize. The UM janitors returned to work on May 3, 2006, signifying the end of their nine-week-long strike. Following the vote, UM janitor Maritza Perez (who had worked for UNICCO for eleven years) said, "I’m going to return [to work] with my head held high, protected by the name of the union, which is rare in the state of Florida."
On January 17, 2006, as the SEIU began ramping up efforts at UM, president Shalala issued a statement addressing the university’s non-authorized solicitation regulations. Her letter emphasized the university’s commitment to remain neutral regarding any labor issues between UNICCO and the SEIU. When the movement started gaining significant momentum in late March, UM announced a new policy setting higher standards for companies contracted by the university. This resulted in setting a minimum wage of $8.00 per hour; the recognition of performance and length of service in pay scales; and the offering of affordable health insurance to university employees. In an April 12 press release (following the storming of the administration building by protestors), Shalala condemned the actions of the protestors, and stated: “it was the student organization STAND that delivered the message that [the outside protestors] were not welcome on campus today.”
Responses by University governmental bodies
The strike was the subject of several motions by university governmental bodies, including one passed on March 28 by the Faculty Senate, which urged UM to stipulate that its contractors provide a living wage, health insurance, and a fair workplace. The resolution further stated that should UNICCO's contract not be renewed by UM, that the successful bidder be required to hire those workers currently employed by UNICCO at UM. Another resolution, this one by the UM Student Government, was an April 19 mandate "strongly" disapproving of recent campus disruptions by several of the pro-strike organizations (ACORN, JWJ, SEIU, and STAND), and which called on them to end the disruptions immediately. The actions by these groups mentioned in the resolution included the harassing of UM students, the disruption of a class taught by Shalala, trespassing on private property, and "vandalizing the back entrance of the Ashe Building with graffiti".
Results affecting employees
In addition to the SEIU being elected as the union for UM workers, the original policy changes implemented by UM in late March 2006 were kept, along with some additional improvements.
- Increased wages
|Position||Previous Salary||New Salary|
- Pay scale
|Contract Year||Pay Increase|
|Year 3 & 4||+$0.50|
- Health Care
Disciplinary charges against students
Approximately 20 University of Miami students allegedly involved in pro-union activities received official notices to appear before a university Dean on charges that they were being investigated for "major violations". SEIU representatives asked for amnesty for the students as part of the negotiated settlement on May 1, but were told the request was not negotiable.
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- How Much Should Colleges Pay Their Janitors?; Van Der Werf, Martin; Harvard University; accessed .
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- Gresko, Jessica. “University of Miami Campus Janitors Go On Strike.” Lakeland Ledger. March, 1 2006
- Wides-Munoz, Laura. “University janitors, contract workers OK union.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune. June 16, 2006
- UM Janitors End 2-month Strike; auto-download PDF; Boodhoo, Niala; SEIU .com; retrieved .
- University of Miami; E-Veritas; The Fire; University of Miami; accessed ???.
- Note: Housekeeper wages increased from $6.40 to $8.00; and groundskeeper wages increased from $6.40 to $9.30.
- Dialogue with Donna Shalala; April 12, 2006; Miami EDU; accessed .
- Dialogue with Donna Shalala; March 20, 2006; Miami EDU; accessed .
- Miami EDU legislation—2004-14(D); March 28, 2006; PDF download; Faculty Senate Memorandum; University of Miami; p.1; retrieved March 2014.
- A Resolution Disapproving of Recent Campus Disruptions—Action 07009; PDF auto-download; Student Senate; retrieved March 2014.