UNICCO workers at the university went on strike Tuesday night to demand living wages and benefits. The strike continued through Wednesday, with workers forming a picket line outside the UNICCO office on San Amaro Drive and marching around campus with students rallying alongside.
All eyes are now on the university as media attention continues to grow, local clergy get involved, and faculty members scramble to arrange alternate settings to hold classes.
It is estimated that, at its peak, about 150 workers and 50 students were at the picket line.
“If they think that people on the picket line don’t have the will to continue, they’re very wrong,” said Eric Brakken, lead organizer for SEIU, while addressing the workers. “This fight will continue to escalate until UNICCO recognizes that these people have basic human rights. We have the momentum, the workers are strong, and today’s a new day, a new fight.”
The strike came two days after the vote on Sunday. UNICCO issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the decision to strike, calling it “an unnecessary and unproductive tactic employed by the Service Employees International Union that will only serve to needlessly drive a wedge between workers and their employer.” The statement went on to say that the union “does not wish to let our employees really voice their opinion through a secret ballot vote,” and that a very slim majority of workers actually participated in the decision.
The university said it stands by the statement the administration released recently addressing the decision to strike.
“The right to express opinions is a core value of our university community. Certainly, we acknowledge this essential right and recognize that all members of our community possess the freedom to advance personal political or social positions,” the university’s statement read.
The statement also noted that “all of us, as members of an academic community, have an obligation to continue to teach, to do research, and to see patients.” The university will remain open for the duration of the strike.
“Even though this has the support of the broad community, the board of trustees and the president will not meet on the issue,” Jacob Coker-Dukowitz of STAND said.
Students and faculty are making several adjustments to class and schedules to deal with the strike. Louise Davidson-Schmich, political science professor, conducted votes in two of her classes to determine whether or not to move off-campus.
“In one class, the students voted to support the strike, and others voted to keep our normal class,” Davidson-Schmich said. She added that, among her students, about half support the workers.
Michael Fischl, law professor, conducted a similar vote, but has yet to hear the results.
“A surprising number of students are becoming very vocal in their support of the workers. There are few students, that I’ve seen, that oppose the strike,” Fischl said.
He also commented on faculty support, mainly on a group of professors arranging off-campus teaching locations and press interviews, among other things. Fischl plans to conduct class at Temple Judea and a Quaker Meeting House should his students decide to go off campus.
Faculty members in general, though, support students who choose not to go off campus as a form of conscientious objection.
Katherine Ramsey, a history professor, plans to move her class off campus.
“I am committed to freedom of conscience and will make other arrangements with any student who is unwilling to relocate our meeting on this account,” Ramsey said.
Student reaction appears to be mixed.
Will Yeingst, junior, supports the workers and plans to join the picket line.
“They work harder than any of my friends that have jobs, our tuition is so high, and they get paid so little,” he said.
However, there are some who disagree.
Brendan Mackesey, junior, disagrees not with higher wages, but rather the decision to strike.
“Higher wages should be obtained by hard work and experience, not by standing around carrying picket signs,” he said. “[The strike] will make my job, and other people’s jobs there, much harder. As an usher, I might have to pick up trash and do stuff the UNICCO workers usually do.”
The university said it will work with UNICCO to ensure that services continue to be provided.
Margot Winick, director of media relations, said the university hasn’t noticed much service disruption.
Tanya Aquino, a senior, protested in front of President Donna E. Shalala’s public health class Wednesday night in the Learning Center. Aquino was wearing a homemade sign and was passing out printed signs to students who wanted to make a silent statement.
The UM police quickly stopped Aquino.
“I took back the signs from the students still outside, but some students went in with them,” she said. “The police were gentle and nice about the situation and completely explained why we had to stop.”
Sgt. George Baixauli, who was present at the scene, declined to comment.
From the legislative front, after much deliberation, the Student Government Senate resolved Wednesday that the university should support “employment justice,” meaning that all workers should receive a living wage.
Several activities regarding the workers and the strike are planned, including a speech by state representatives on Thursday and a march on Friday.
Jay Rooney can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.