Janitors, students force U of Miami to talk

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MIAMI — The University of Miami main campus saw action March 28 that would have been unimaginable a few short weeks ago. More than 300 janitors, students, faculty and community supporters stopped traffic on South Dixie Highway, next to the campus, as they rallied to support the janitors’ strike against unfair labor practices by UNICCO, their service-contract employer.

Protesters called for a living wage, health care and recognition of the janitors’ card-check decision to be represented by the Service Employees International Union. The rally surged into the highway, stopping lunch-hour traffic and bringing this struggle to the attention of the wider Miami community. Drivers trapped by the action honked and waved their support.

Clergy and other community supporters sat down at an intersection in an act of civil disobedience and 17 were arrested.

Meanwhile, about 20 students moved into the admissions office in the Ashe Administration Building and occupied the premises for 14 hours. When word of their action reached the rally, everyone hurried back to campus. A number of workers, students, faculty and others were able to get into the building lobby before police blocked the doors. Hundreds outside chanted, sang and held up signs.

Why all this action? The UM janitors, contracted out to UNICCO, are among the most poorly paid university janitors in the nation, many earning as little as $6.30 an hour with no health benefits. They have been organizing with SEIU and went on strike against unfair labor practices a month ago.

UNICCO’s response has been to step up intimidation and coercion of workers. UM President Donna Shalala announced to the media (not the university community, much less the janitors themselves) a raise for all campus contract workers. But the raise does not bring them up to a living wage and Shalala did not acknowledge the union. The March 28 actions turned up the heat.

Early in the sit-in, the UM administration cut off air conditioning to the occupied locations. Students and their supporters were denied access to food, water and bathrooms. They remained undaunted. In fact, e-mails went out to the campus and progressive organizations urging supporters to call Shalala and demand humane treatment for the students (demands she ignored).

At a vigil called for 5 p.m., the hour designated for clearing the building, hundreds stood in solidarity with the students. The students held firm, using supplies they had brought in, urinating in bottles and buckets, as negotiations with Shalala dragged into the night. To limit information coming out, the university dampened the wireless signal in the building.

Shalala reportedly threatened the students with not only arrest but expulsion from the university. The students stayed. Their spirits were buoyed by chants and songs from a hardy group of scores of supporters — janitors, other students, faculty and community members.

Finally, at 2 a.m., the students emerged to announce that the university had agreed to a number of their demands. UM officials agreed to hold a meeting with UNICCO workers, students, faculty and SEIU within 48 hours. The university also agreed to release a statement saying it will not tolerate intimidation or coercion of workers.

This is the first time UM officials have sat down at the table with workers. It is seen as a major victory for the students, janitors and their supporters. You can follow this story and support the janitors at www.yeswecane.org and www.seiu11.org.