University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala and university officials agreed Wednesday morning to hold a meeting between the various parties involved in the UNICCO workers’ strike.
In addition to the meeting, which will be held no later than Friday morning and involve workers, students, faculty and representatives from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and UNICCO, the university agreed to encourage the union and UNICCO to reach an agreement, and would issue a statement condemning coercion of workers.
The agreement came at the end of a sit-in, which involved 19 students sitting inside the Bowman Foster Ashe Building to demonstrate that their demands that had not yet been met. Of the 19, 17 stayed 13 hours while supportive students, faculty and workers chanted both inside the foyer, and outside Ashe.
Father Frank Corbishley, of the Episcopal Center, was also with the students.
During the sit-in, Shalala addressed students in the UC ballrooms about the issue. Members of Students Toward a New Democracy (STAND) had an opportunity to speak and made their intentions clear to the president.
“We have started a sit-in today,” said Beni Yunis, a sophomore member of STAND. “Change is a wonderful thing, but it is not enough, and we’re not going to stop until we get what [the workers]want.”
While in the UC, Shalala was asked about rumors that the air conditioning had been cut off in Ashe and students participating in the sit-in being denied access to water and bathrooms.
“We’re not going to feed the strike,” Shalala said. “The students have a right to demonstrate; they don’t have a right to interrupt university business.”
As a result of the sit-in, Ashe was completely blocked off and no one was allowed to enter as long as the students remained in the admissions office.
“They have basically closed down the building,” Shalala said.
After Shalala spoke, a vigil in support of the sit-in was held outside the Ashe building, where more than 100 students, faculty, workers and eventually media gathered.
As the sit-in progressed, students conversed with Shalala. Tents were also set up outside the building, with food and water brought in for the protestors.
However, police officers would not allow supplies to be brought inside the building.
As the sit-in entered its final hours, tensions escalated and the administration threatened arrest, suspension and expulsion for those involved, students said.
“We’re here for the workers, and we won’t let them down,” Tanya Aquino, senior, said from inside the Ashe building. “We face legal and academic repercussions. They’re threatening to suspend and expel us.
“The emotions are running very high right now,” Aquino said calmly. “We don’t know what’s going to happen to us. Most of us are leaning towards arrest.”
Then, following an additional meeting with Shalala, the students rushed out of the Ashe building to announce the agreement.
“[It’s] a victory that happened because of your support, the workers’ courage and the university’s willingness to meet with us,” Aquino said.
Earlier that day, around 100 workers, 75 clergy members, students, faculty and community leaders marched to the intersection of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and Granada Avenue intending to stage another civil disobedience.
Seventeen protesters, including local clergy, proceeded to block traffic on U.S. 1. They were arrested and processed at the Coral Gables Police Department.
UNICCO issued a statement Tuesday condemning the acts of protest, claiming the organizers do not speak for the workers.
“Three hundred people just doing their jobs [don’t] attract media attentions when there are a handful of people standing in traffic,” the statement read.
The statement once again called for a secret ballot, which would be conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.
“Only the union can allow that to happen but the fear of the outcome is too great for them to let the workers speak for themselves,” the statement read.
The SEIU and STAND have repeatedly rejected the fairness and promptness of such an election, opting instead for a card check, which UNICCO has yet to accept as an option.
A card check would consist of counting cards signed by workers stating they want to implement a union. A simple majority, 50 percent plus one, of the workers would have to agree to unionize in this manner. According to Jacob Coker-Dukowitz of STAND, the difference between a card check and a secret ballot is that a secret ballot would count those workers who choose to vote, whereas, if someone abstained from voting in a card check, it would be counted as a vote against unionizing.
UNICCO spokesman Doug Bailey has a different take.
“What do we do with a person who has signed a card and said they did so to get rid of [SEIU]?” Bailey asked. “A woman told me that someone showed up to her house and wouldn’t leave until she signed the card, so she signed. We just don’t feel comfortable forcing those people into a labor union.”
Both sides say the issue is letting the workers choose how to decide on whether to unionize.
Student reactions to the civil disobedience and disruptions it caused are mixed.
“I support the strike, and I hope they get a living wage, but why can’t I get into Ashe for a really urgent matter?” Austin Eck, junior, said.
“We’re supporting them and their cause,” Jimmy Elens, junior, said. “I was taken by surprise. They have guts.”
For the students involved in the sit-in, it was all about stress, followed by relief and accomplishment, and looking forward to what would come next.
“We made amazing progress today, but that is contingent upon the next 48 hours and the university’s upholding of their goodwill,” Adam Greenberg, junior, said. “I will never forget that I learned my school’s alma mater while protesting against it.”
Jay Rooney can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.