Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A black eye for Sebastian the Ibis.

Will wonders never cease? There's a hunger strike going on at suntan U over the university’s opposition to allowing its janitors unionize. I lived in Miami for thirty years --I actually lived on the UM campus for three years --- and I can't remember ever seeing anything even remotely political going on there. (Beyond the obligatory anti-Castro crap)

Certainly, I never heard the word "union" for the first twenty years I lived in Florida, which is a 'right to work' state (i.e. right to work for minimum wage). When I was a youngster, my first job was at a Winn-Dixie and the first thing the store manager said to me was: "we don't go for unions here, boy." [say with redneck drawl] I wasn't even sure what he was talking about, but the idea of him being afraid of a bagboy's union just seemed ridiculous even then.

In any case, the issue at hand at the UM is six janitors and five students on a hunger strike to force the university president, Donna Shalala, Clinton's former secretary of health and human services, to allow the janitors to unionize. [The offical website of the protest] The strike has been going on for 13 days and out of the university's 425 janitors the union, the Employees International Union, says 200 have been on a sevenweek-long walkout. Shalala says its half that, but there's no sign of this issue going away anytime soon because of Shalala's intransigence.

The Union wants the subcontractor that employs the janitors, Unicco, to let them sign union card checks but Shalala says they should vote with secret ballots. Shalala says, "The hunger strike is quite distressing. I've never heard of a hunger strike for card checks." [NYT] Well, you have now. Maybe, if she was making $17,000 a year instead of the $516,904 she makes as president, she'd be even more distressed.

This is the best part: Shalala set up a committee, that the janitors weren't invited to join, to come up with recommendations for a decent wage. The committee came up with the idea of giving the janitors health coverage and a raise, from $6.40 an hour, to a whopping $8.55!!!!! My God, they're making $6.40 an hour? I Miami? Is Shalala kidding? Shalala (aka Marie Antoinette) says, "We've raised wages so we're now on top of the market." Just because that's the high end of the retail wage scale in Miami doesn't mean that's the top of the market. On what planet can anyone pay rent and buy food on $8.55 an hour?

Shalala says, "My position is that we cannot take a position against an election, and we should not dictate to our contractor that they have to take one legal way versus another." Why not, they work for the university, too, right? If they don't like it they can lump it or leave. Bethany Quinn, one of the hunger strikers, says, "The university is who pays Unicco. They have a contract. They have all the power to say, 'This is what needs to be done." Damn straight! Shalala's hands aren't tied; it's just a matter of her having the moral courage to do what's right.

And how is having a hunger striker camp in front of the university better than paying a living wage? How does this benefit the students and trustees of the UM? And what if someone gets seriously ill or dies? The Alumni should be mortified that this is going on. No amount of Hurricane football National Championships will cover up dead hunger strikers.

I remember when I lived at the UM, my mom and me lived in a hovel in the family-student housing section of campus. The apartments had been built back during the New Deal and they looked like it. But the Hurricanes, who were just getting good back then, got new fancy digs with their own laundry rooms and all the amenities. These jocks got to pass their phys-ed classes without even bothering to show up, attacked students in drunken brawls and got away scott-free. Maybe, the janitors should try out for the team, and then they might get some attention.

[Note: Here's a letter to Unicco from a number of janitor unions 4 years ago. Unicco has contracts all over the country on university campuses and they've been up to teir "flagrant anti-family and anti-worker shenanigans" for a long time. One might ask havin gthis history, why the UM hired them in the first place.]


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