No end in sight as hunger strike continues

The struggle of UNICCO workers to unionize has escalated even further with two striking workers hospitalized over the weekend, and demonstrators gathered outside the Ashe building on Tuesday and Wednesday.

UNICCO and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) also continue to spar over the best way to let workers decide over a unionizing process.

UNICCO worker Isabel Montalvo collapsed on April 8 and was rushed to Doctor’s Hospital after an on-site nurse determined a spike in her blood pressure put her at risk for a stroke.

Montalvo has since returned to the hunger strike.

On April 9, Odalys Rodriguez, UNICCO worker, also collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.

Following these events, students, workers and SEIU representatives convened at Donna E. Shalala’s office early Tuesday afternoon requesting to speak to her. The group was told Shalala was not available.

Upon leaving the building, more than 100 striking UNICCO workers from Nova Southeastern University, as well as representatives from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) rallied outside the Ashe building in support of the workers.

Clara Vargas, UNICCO worker, is participating in the hunger strike along with other striking workers.

“I’m feeling a bit weak, I had some back pains, but it’s been getting a bit better,” she said. “In any case, we implore [Shalala] to be human, to listen to the workers. We have to have hope,” she said.

“Here are these workers’ human and civil rights being trampled on, they haven’t eaten in eight days, and Shalala won’t even meet with them,” said Jacob Coker-Dukowitz, a junior and member of STAND. “If she came down and talked to the workers, I would be very happy.”

According to Margot Winick, director of media relations, the university does not want to see a hunger strike, but won’t speak out against an election.

“It’s sad. The university doesn’t want to see this, but they’re not on university property, so it’s hard for me to say,” she said. “I heard UNICCO say they can have this solved in a matter of days if the union calls for a vote.”

Dukowitz, however, disagrees.

“It’s not a process issue. This is about civil rights, and talking about anything else is changing the subject,” he said. “The reality is the university is the one responsible here.”

Doug Bailey, UNICCO spokesman, expressed concern over the strike.

“It’s unfortunate that they would go on a hunger strike,” he said. “We believe they’ve been fed a bag of lies, and it’s unconceivable for the union to allow this to happen. What they’re doing amounts to extortion.”

The SEIU had a completely different take on the situation.

“Think of what this company has done – it has threatened workers, polarized workers,” Renee Asher, SEIU spokeswoman, said. “[Shalala] needs to step up to UNICCO and say ‘I will not tolerate this.'”

Seven students are to join the nine workers hunger striking as of press time. Tanya Aquino, a senior and a member of STAND, is among them.

“This is not just about the over 400 families on strike, this is for all of working America,” she said. “This is social justice for the workers whose right to organize is denied. It’s bigger than the hunger strikers, it’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than UM, and it’s not going to stop.”

Jay Rooney can be contacted at