Inside a small church Saturday morning, pews were filled with people in purple shirts each holding up a paper that said “Voting Card” and chanting, “Si se puede! Si se puede! UNICCO escucha estamos en la lucha,” which means “Yes, we can! Yes, we can! UNICCO listen, we are in the fight.”
The workers and student group S.T.A.N.D. held this rally at St. Bede Episcopal Church to authorize a strike against UNICCO, a company that contracts workers to the University of Miami. If UNICCO refuses the employees’ proposals by Aug. 31, the renewal date for their contracts, UNICCO workers will strike.
The event started with a boisterous speech from Eric Brakken, a regional Service Employees International Union director. SEIU is the national union under which UNICCO workers are allowed to organize. Brakken got the crowd clapping and cheering with his words.
“We’re here to tell the university and the entire city of Miami that we’re serious about winning a good contract,” Brakken said.
A slew of speakers spoke regarding the issue, including State Representative Luis Garcia, candidate for Miami-Dade Commissioner Annette Taddeo and S.T.A.N.D. member Stephanie Sandhu. At the end, workers moved outside with signs and marched across Ponce de Leon Boulevard to U.S. 1.
S.T.A.N.D.’s request to protest was denied by Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Whitely and the Office of Student Affairs. However true, S.T.A.N.D. and SEIU received approval from the City of Coral Gables for a permit to march. Whitely was not available to comment.
Sandhu believes history has proven that the university has a major role in what becomes of the labor disputes.
“The university has the power and resources to set aside these demands,” Sandhu said. “All UM has to do is talk with UNICCO and the workers’ demands will be satisfied.”
Four years ago, the university’s cleaning and landscape workers held a nine-week strike against UNICCO. The strike was against unfair labor practices, below minimum pay and lack of health benefits. The result was a four-year contract with higher pay, health care and other standards.
Former S.T.A.N.D. members UM medical student Jacob Coker-Dakowitz and Trishal Siddharthan came out to St. Bede to support the workers. They also participated in the strike of spring 2006.
“It was the largest protest on campus,” Siddharthan said. “The students joined workers outside, which were 1,000 people in total.”
Siddharthan said that back then, the workers did not have the privilege to protest. They joined the SEIU after 75% of them voted to be unionized.
“All [the workers] are asking for is the dignity to fair wages on the job that shouldn’t be too hard for [UNICCO] to give,” he said.
A few weeks ago, the union’s bargaining committee met with UNICCO representatives for contract negotiations. The discussion ended with UNICCO offering a one-year contract, freezing worker’s wages and rejecting most of the union’s proposals, such as vacation time, safety and job seniority.
On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the union will negotiate again. If proposals aren’t met, workers will strike.
Andrea Concepcion may be contacted at email@example.com.