Over spring break, the university decided to raise wages and require health insurance for all contracted service workers. The move comes after the group appointed earlier this year to study worker wages and benefits reported its findings to the administration.
President Donna E. Shalala announced in a statement that wages would increase to $8 an hour for outside service contractors, $8.55 an hour for housekeepers (up from $6.40) and $9.30 an hour for groundskeepers (also up from $6.40).
Contracted companies will also be expected to provide affordable health insurance.
The new policy was effective immediately March 16, with health plans expected to be implemented within a month.
“Universities should always lead the way, and providing fair wages and health insurance is a necessity,” the statement said.
However, students and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have indicated that their campaign for workers is not over; they are still pushing to organize and form a union.
“[The workers] were delighted and happy that the university was engaged and taking responsibility for working conditions on campus,” said Renee Asher of SEIU media relations.
She said that she felt there were omissions in Shalala’s statement.
“[Shalala] did not instruct UNICCO to obey the law and stop their anti-union campaign,” Asher said. “This company has continued to break the law and the question back to Donna Shalala is, ‘What are you going to do to hold this company accountable for their actions?'”
This sentiment was echoed in some student and faculty circles around campus.
Michael Fischl, a UM law professor, has been at the forefront of faculty’s role in the campaign.
“There was a sense among a lot of faculty that we, together with our students, had made a fairly dramatic statement,” he said. “[Among active members] folks are saying on one hand, the improvements appear to be substantial, and that’s wonderful. On the other hand, there’s a lot that we’re still in the dark about.”
Fischl also pointed out that the students and faculty know almost nothing about the health care benefit.
Jacob Coker-Dukowitz of STAND was pleased with the announcement.
“The implementation of raised wages is an amazing step forward and I’m proud to be a part of the community that made that change,” he said.
Dukowitz noted more needed to be done in terms of forming a union to represent workers.
“[UM], though making amazing progress, is still not allowing workers to be a part of that process,” he said.
The clergy, who have been very active in the campaign, said the campaign wouldn’t stop just yet.
“The clergy continue to speak out on behalf of the workers and we’ll show up at events,” said Rev. Frank Corvishly of the Episcopal Church.
Questions have been raised as to whether the living wage would come out of student tuition.
“There will be no increase in tuition next year to cover the cost of this new program,” said Shalala in the statement. “Tuition is already high, and we intend to honor all published rates for the next academic year.
Margot Winick, director of media relations, said the funds would come from other university sources.
“My understanding is the president has said it’s probably going to affect the university undertaking some future projects right away,” Winick said.
The university has also decided to remain neutral in the workers’ efforts to unionize.
“It’s their right to make that decision or not,” Winick said. “The university will not get involved. That’s between them, the workers themselves, and the union. That’s what it’s been all along. It wasn’t about salaries; it was about maintaining a climate of neutrality if they want to unionize.”
Doug Bailey, UNICCO spokesman, supported the university’s decision.
“We think it shows real initiative here, because it affects all contractors, not just UNICCO, and we’re fine with competing on a level playing field,” he said.
However, the company appears to be at odds with SEIU.
“The issue of wages has been addressed, the issue of representation has not been addressed, and will not be until the union files for an election,” Bailey said. “They don’t have the support of the workers they’re trying to organize. We had more workers come back to work today because of the new wages and benefits.”
Some students responded positively to the university’s decision to increase wages.
“I think that it’s the proper and moral move by the university, regardless of what other industries end up paying their workers,” Blair Scott, junior, said.
“I’m kind of apathetic about the union part. I just wanted to see if they would get insurance,” Chloe Daley, junior, said.
Feliciano Hernandez is a UNICCO worker who makes $10.60 and still supports the strike.
“I refuse to leave the strike, because we’re not looking for a high-end salary, we’re looking for a contract that guarantees our future,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez cited a similar health care promise 5 years ago and is skeptical.
“[It is] a trick played by Shalala and UNICCO to get people to abandon the strike,” Hernandez said. And in four months, when the press leaves the issue behind, then they’ll start to fire people and lower wages. We are not going to fall into that trap. I am prepared for what may come.”
Jay Rooney can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org