On February 26, 2006, custodial workers at the University of Miami, who are contracted to the university by a Boston, Massachusetts-based company, UNICCO, voted to strike. The strike began on the evening of February 28, 2006. The vote to strike was based on allegations of unfair labor practices. Concerns were also raised about substandard pay, lack of health benefits, and workplace safety.
The striking workers' claim of substandard wages was claimed to be substantiated by a 2001 census of 195 colleges conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, which found UM's custodial workers to be the second lowest in pay and UM to be one of only 12 universities among the 195 surveyed whose custodial workers' wages did not exceed the federal poverty line.
On March 20, 2006, in response to pressure from student and community groups supporting the strike and on advice of a task force, UM President Donna Shalala announced that the university was planning to make changes to contract workers' wages and benefits, including:
In the vote to strike, concerns also were raised about workplace safety at UM.
Concerns also were raised about UNICCO's track record with workplace safety at other job sites. For instance, the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited UNICCO for "alleged willful and repeat violations of safety standards following a June 8, 2005 accident at the New England Executive Park in Burlington, Massachusetts, that killed one worker and severely injured another." Following the incident, OSHA fined UNICCO $152,000.
Additionally, the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) released a report on April 28, 2006 listing twelve companies--which they labeled a "dirty dozen"-- whose disregard for their employees’ safety and health has had tragic consequences for workers and their families. COSH listed UNICCO among the 12.
According to at least one university estimate , 75% of custodial workers, as of April 12, 2006, were continuing to work during the strike.
A central issue in the strike was whether the custodial workers could unionize by signing pledge cards, as advocated by SEIU and the striking workers, or whether, as UNICCO supported until May 1, 2006, such a vote should be held secretly and run by the National Labor Relations Board. UNICCO and other supporters of a secret ballot argued that a secret ballot was preferable because it protected voting workers from intimidation and harassment. Both methods of unionization, however, are allowed under U.S. law.
UNICCO wanted the decision made by a National Labor Relations Board election, in which a majority of voting workers would determine the outcome. Since no one is required to vote in an NLRB election a decision to unionize or not could be determined by a minority of workers. Striking workers and the SEIU, on the other hand, advocated a public (not secret ballot) card-check process that would result in a union only if a majority of all the workers employed by UNICCO signed cards indicating that they wanted a union. According to the SEIU, 56% of the workers signed non-binding pledge cards expressing their intention to join the union.
UNICCO representatives generated the slogan "Let 'em vote" to support an NLRB-election. UM faculty generated the slogan "Let 'em choose," and the workers generated the slogan "Let us choose" to support card check as the method of unionization.
On March 3, 2006, a demonstration supportive of the striking workers organized by the student group STAND (Students Towards A New Democracy) drew approximately 600 students, faculty, workers, and other supporters. The demonstration began on campus and then crossed U.S. 1, a South Florida freeway adjacent to the university, to Sunset Place, causing some traffic disruptions. On March 28, 2006, seven clergy members were arrested for their participation in a supportive rally that briefly interfered with traffic on U.S. Route 1.
In an effort to further increase pressure on UNICCO and the university to agree to a card-check vote on unionization, a group of approximately 19 UM students from STAND and clergy held a sit-in in the Ashe Administrative Building on March 28, 2006. Participants in the sit-in criticized the university for turning off electricity to the building at 5 p.m. and denying them access to water and restrooms during the sit-in. After 13 hours, the sit-in was called to an end by its organizers after the university issued a statement reiterating its position that its contracted workers have a right to unionize and that its contractors must obey U.S. labor and other laws.
In an April 12, 2006 open letter to the university community, Shalala suggested that a large number of the protesters on April 11 and 12 were organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and were unaffiliated with the university.
In mid-April, UM students from STAND, several of whom had been hunger-striking, began camping out in front of the Ashe Administration Building, stating that they would remain there until President Shalala made an unambiguous statement of neutrality regarding the unionization process. These students, along with other staff and faculty members, alleged that lawn sprinklers were turned on continuously for several days and nights, presumably to inconvenience the protest. The group ceased this protest on April 26, 2006, in response to President Shalala's letter to the university community stating that the university had no objection to unionization.
On April 5, 2006, a group of custodial workers and UM students from STAND began a hunger strike in support of the striking workers. After 18 days, Andy Stern of the SEIU urged the workers to cease their hunger strike and allow others to take their places. Along with other students, faculty, and community members, Stern also participated in a hunger strike. Several clergy of Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths supported the striking workers, and some fasted with them.
The group camped out under the Coral Gables/University of Miami stop of Miami's Metrorail across from the main gate of the UM campus. This hunger strike camp became a center of strike activity and continued until the strike's May 1, 2006 cessation.
Once the strike began, the administration several times affirmed the right of the custodial workers to unionize. But it maintained that the university should and would remain neutral regarding the voting process on unionization. Several communications from the UM administration, however, seemed to side with UNICCO in displaying a preference for elections over card checks:
The strike was the subject of six motions by several university governmental bodies.
The UM custodial strike attracted national attention, including visits by several out-of-town political and labor leaders in support of the strike:
On May 1, 2006, it was announced that UNICCO and the SEIU had reached an agreement that an independent third party would determine whether a supermajority of workers, defined as 60%, wish to unionize. 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 agreed not to interfere with the workers' decision on whether or not to form a union. Provisions included:
On June 15, 2006 at noon at the campus Episcopal Church (the former "strike sanctuary"), the results of the card count were announced: the AAA determined that more than a supermajority of UM UNICCO employees (290 out of 385 votes, or 75 percent) had signed cards asking the SEIU to represent them. This represents the first union presence in UM's history.
Since the last week of April 2006, 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”, a typical charge for sexual assault violations, which could possibly lead to their suspension or expulsion.
SEIU representatives asked for amnesty for the students as part of the negotiated settlement on May 1, but were told the request was non-negotiable. When the students appeared before the Dean, each of them represented by a lawyer working pro bono, they were advised that the charges related to violations of university rules on disorderly conduct and failure to comply with the university’s requests or orders. They were also allegedly asked to identify pictures of themselves or others in pictures of demonstrations, which violates the university's published rules of procedure. On the advice of their attorneys, the students reportedly refused to respond to the questioning. In mid-May, attorneys representing the students asked for a meeting with Shalala, but their request was denied and they were instead referred to a private law firm retained by the university.
In late May 2006, the charges were relegated to the "minor" category. One effect of this change is that students now do not have the right to involve attorneys in their meetings with academic deans. A number of students have requested that their hearings be postponed until Fall 2006, when their cases would be heard by a Dean, a faculty member, and students. In the summer, only a Dean would be present to hear their cases. So far, all such requests have been denied. Some faculty and community members are concerned that a Dean could act alone as investigator, judge, and jury. In mid-June 2006, some students learned that they were also being charged with improper distribution of literature.