UM bears some responsibility for the mistreatment and overworking of campus workers

Subcontracted campus workers staged a protest last Tuesday demanding better treatment from ABM Industries, a major employer of the people who help make the University of Miami function. The demonstration is the fifth in just four years.

But if you expected a response to the workers’ demands from UM’s administration, you’d still be waiting. A recurring theme after these protests is that UM stays quiet or redirects complaints to ABM.

UM hires janitorial and groundskeeping staff through ABM, a facility management company with more than 140,000 employees that claims to pride itself on showing respect “for every person, every day.”

Antonio Benton, a Service Employees International Union (SEIU 32 BJ) delegate and ABM employee, said in the recent TMH article covering the April 12 protest that the university has a history of brushing workers off, telling them they “need to resolve these problems with ABM.”

To say the least, that’s unfortunate, because the university has an obligation to put pressure on ABM to meet workers’ demands in order to achieve a safe and reasonable work environment.

The most recent protest was staged by UM’s janitorial staff, SEIU 32 BJ (the union that represents many of them) and members of the University of Miami Employee Student Alliance (UMESA), an unofficial student and worker organization created to fight on behalf of workers at UM. It echoed demands made by protesting workers as far back as November, 2019, for ABM to hire more employees based on the disproportionate distribution of janitorial duties to the number of employees.

As stated by graduate student and UMESA member Mars Fernandez in the TMH article, “when workers leave, they don’t fill the vacancies. So what ends up happening, the same amount of work needs to be done, and managers pressure the workers to do an extra amount of work.”

It is ABM’s responsibility to correct the core structural problem of not employing enough workers or distributing work reasonably, but the university, as the ultimate employer who pays ABM, holds the power to pressure the company to act.

Marlene Trejos, an ABM janitor, detailed her experiences where the dining hall, where many workers eat, has been crowded and pushed them over their allotted thirty minute break for that shift, forcing them to stay late and finish work after their shift is up.

She also explained that when one of her managers tested positive for COVID-19, she was asked to stay home but was not compensated, losing $200.

“They were not giving me the proper amount of money for my time off, yet I know that the university does give them that money,” said Trejos.

While the university may not be directly employing or managing these staff members, these violations of their rights as workers are occurring on our campus. The administration has the moral obligation to support these essential employees and investigate these structural failings. Without support from administration, subcontracted employees fear for themselves in speaking out.

“The people are bothered and upset but at the same time we are scared,” said Trejos, “We’re scared because if we don’t accept the treatment that they are giving us, then they could potentially fire us.”

No matter who signs their paychecks, employees on our campus should not have to repeatedly protest to be treated with respect. They certainly should not have to fear losing their jobs if they speak out.

Our janitorial, groundskeeping, cafeteria, and other essential staff do physically demanding and strenuous work on a daily basis for our benefit. They keep our campus as functional and visually appealing as it is, something that the university promotes and capitalizes on.

“​​The university talks a lot about a culture of belonging, of Canes Care for Canes,” said Fernandez. “But through the practice of subcontracting out an essential piece of work … they are effectively disenfranchising a whole group of people who are the most exploited workers at the university.”

UM’s track record of supporting subcontracted workers is poor. As well as the November 2019 protest, demonstrations by subcontracted workers and their supporters demanding action from both the university and their employers in June 2020, Sept. 2020 and Feb. 2021 saw little, if any, response from UM and led to no changes from their employers.

Despite a win in protesting for better contracts last spring, workers on our campus still feel that ABM does not respect their rights as employees, and the university staying complacent downplays the extent to which members of our community are being exploited.

Instead of shrugging responsibility, there are things administration, students and faculty could all do to support the university’s subcontracted workers in their fight for what they deserve as workers.

To motivate administration to be vocal, students and faculty need to be vocal. Even when it’s awkward or uncomfortable, we should amplify the voices of members of our community when their basic needs are not being met.

Employees should not have to protest to be given reasonable hours or to be properly compensated for their work, especially not when working somewhere as distinguished as UM.

While the university may not be directly responsible for the mistreatment of these workers, they still have a responsibility to support and protect every member of our community to the fullest of their ability.