Tensions escalate in workers’ strike

Tensions between UNICCO workers, supportive students, faculty and the university escalated last week following an alleged police harassment of a student and a large march involving hundreds of people protesting in solidarity of the workers.

On Thursday night, Alyssa Cundari, a freshman and member of Students Toward a New Democracy (STAND), said she was harassed by campus police officers for trying to distribute pamphlets. Cundari said she approached a function at the School of Architecture. After being told it was a private donor event, Cundari said she distributed pro-living wage flyers until campus police asked her for her pamphlets and her ‘Cane card. Cundari said she handed over the pamphlets, but, unsure of her rights, refused to give her name and mentioned she didn’t have her ‘Cane card. The officers would not allow her to leave the scene, she said.

According to the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook, “students are required to carry their ‘Cane cards at all times and to present their ‘Cane cards when requested by University personnel,” including staff members of the department of public safety.

The handbook also prohibits solicitation “without the approval of the University authority responsible for the administration of the campus area in which the proposed solicitation will take place.” It defines solicitation as “any approach of one person by another for the purpose of buying, exchanging, or sale of goods and services; recruitment of members or support for an organization or cause; or for the purpose of distributing literature to cause a person to buy, exchange, or sell goods or services or to join an organization or support a cause.”

Cundari said that after she refused to show her ‘Cane card, an officer tried to forcefully move her to a more secluded location; when she resisted, Cundari said the officers threatened to charge her with battery and not revealing one’s identity, and told her of violating the solicitation policy. After she gave her name, the police officers left, she said.

Later that night, Cundari met for about an hour with Keith “Fletch” Fletcher, director of the Butler Volunteer Services Center, and Richard Walker, assistant vice president for student affairs. Walker said that he and Fletcher listened to Cundari, clarified policies and turned the matter over the dean of students for further investigation.

Cundari said she was “appalled” by the incident.

“I was not a threat or a danger to anyone,” she said, “and I am outraged that I was taken advantage of and treated like a criminal.”

Public Safety Director Henry L. Christensen declined to comment but said that “no one was arrested and no one was hurt. We think this is a good thing.” The Coral Gables police department was due to release a police report on the incident Monday after press time.

Michael Fischl, a law professor who was present when Cundari related her story to Eaton associate master Donna Coker and residence hall officials, said in an e-mail that the residence hall officials promised to give “a most forceful communication to campus security officials about the inappropriateness of the officers’ actions.”

Fischl said that the incident shows that “tensions are very high on campus and are likely to increase,” and “the current capacity of university officials and staff to deal fairly and professionally with real and outspoken dissent on this campus is, well, not at all where it ought to be.”

On Friday afternoon, several hundred students and faculty marched from the parking lot in the School of Communication around campus in support of the workers. They met with around another hundred workers on U.S. 1 and marched to Sunset Place, where they formed two separate picket lines. Osvaldo Romero of SEIU addressed the crowd as the march drew to an end.

“We thank the students and faculty, in the name of the workers, for being with us in this struggle,” he said. “We have made history together.” Romero, who said he would return to the picket line on Monday, said the workers will “continue this struggle until we emerge victorious.”

Public Safety Director Christensen and Pat Whitely, vice president for student affairs, followed the march around campus.

“STAND leaders did a terrific job,” Whitely said. “Everything went really well.”

One major difference between Friday’s march and previous living wage marches was faculty presence, which was considerably larger on Friday.

“I’m very proud to be a part of the College of Arts and Sciences because we voted unanimously to support a living wage, but ashamed to work for the university because we still pay poverty wages,” said Anthony Krupp, assistant professor of foreign languages and literatures, who’s currently holding his German classes at Temple Judea on U.S. 1.

Jacob Coker-Dukowitz of STAND, who spearheaded the march, said faculty support “represents the extreme community support” the living wage campaign has, and said “the university has to be ready to take the moral high ground. We’re trying to be supportive and say Shalala can do the right thing.”

Not all workers, however, decided to join the strike. In a phone interview on Friday with The Hurricane, UNICCO worker Maria Romero said through an interpreter that she “feels good in the company, and I don’t like those union activities.”

However, there were occasional discrepancies between what Romero told The Hurricane’s reporter (who speaks Spanish), and what Joe Jimenez, UNICCO supervisor at Mahoney/Pearson, who offered to act as interpreter, was saying.

On the subject of whether union activities were interfering with her job duties, Romero said “No, we work with the company’s utmost confidence, without being inconvenienced.” Jimenez, interpreting for Romero, said “union workers have blocked access to our private parking lots,” not letting people in.

More union activities are planned for the week, and workers are to continue striking.

Jay Rooney can be contacted at j.rooney@umiami.edu.