About 30 UNICCO workers stood out on the Rock to demand living wages, benefits and the formation of a union Wednesday as part of a living wages campaign that is being backed by Students Towards a New Democracy (STAND) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
UNICCO employees took time off from their lunch breaks to be at the event, some coming from Jackson Memorial Hospital and even as far as New York to show their support and to represent the more than 350 cleaners, landscapers and painters employed at the University.
“Human rights is not an issue that is arguable,” Jacob Coker, secretary of STAND, said. “This is not a monetary issue, it is an ethical and moral obligation by the school and the [UNICCO] contractors,” he said, adding that most employees at the University make between $6.30 and $7.40, with generally no benefits.
Osvaldo Romero, organizer and member of SEIU, spoke about the possibility of creating a union. UNICCO workers have unions all over the country, including New York and D.C..
“There is a UNICCO union in Miami International Airport, and there they pay decent wages because of decent contracts, salaries and benefits,” he said. “Why not here?”
At Harvard and Georgetown, students launched similar campaigns and both were successful. Romero emphasized that the same results could be had at UM.
“Si se puede, yes we can,” he said, breaking into a chant which workers and students echoed. “Si se puede, yes we can!”
One by one, UNICCO employees came forward and had their stories translated by Romero.
Nelson Hernandez, who has worked at the University for 25 years, currently makes $6.80 an hour, with no benefits.
“A couple of months ago in June, they got a raise of six and seven cents,” Romero said, translating for Hernandez.
In addition to poor wages, Romero said, workers are discriminated against because of their age.
“Workers that have been here for many years stay overnight while new workers come and get day shifts,” he said. “This campaign is about justice. This campaign is about respect.”
Julio Ramos, who works at the University with his wife Maritza, said that UNICCO’s poor working conditions have left him disillusioned.
“He came to this country looking for freedom,” Romero said. “Sometimes he feels that working for this company, he’s going back to Cuba.”
In addition to low wages, many workers have families, no health insurance and work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Others are left in debt when they are unable to pay costly hospital bills.
“Two months ago I had to get a pacemaker,” Luis Nobo said. He is now in debt $52,000. “I don’t know how I’m gong to be able to pay that.” In his two years of working with UNICCO, he added, he has received an 18-cent raise.
STAND urged students to sign a petition to show their support for the UNICCO workers. Getting support is the first step in the living wage campaign Patrick Walsh, STAND chair, said.
“Every time that you see a worker on campus, tell them that you support them,” Walsh said. “They’ve been here for you, now it’s time for students to be here for them.”
Natalia Maldonado can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.