U of Miami janitors celebrate victory

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — After two months of struggle, including picket lines, demonstrations and a three-week hunger strike, striking janitors at the University of Miami have won the right to unionize through the method of their choice, a card check process.

At 5 p.m. on May 1, the Service Employees International Union announced an agreement with UNICCO, the private contractor that provides janitorial services on the UM campus.

The spontaneous celebration among the workers and their supporters camped out at a “Freedom City” on the edge of campus was so spirited it drowned out the sounds of rush-hour traffic on nearby U.S. Highway 1.

Under the agreement, all striking workers will be able return to their previous jobs. Zoila Marsuli, a janitor who had been fired for her union activities, will receive back pay covering the time she was out of work up to the beginning of the strike.

On May 3, the janitors returned to work with their heads held high.

Workers will sign new union pledge cards, with results to be verified by the American Arbitration Association, an independent agency. SEIU has until Aug. 1 to collect signatures from a supermajority — 60 percent — of the 410 UNICCO janitors on the UM campuses and at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

The agreement includes a code of conduct that says neither side will interfere with the workers’ decisions, a stipulation that should put an end to UNICCO’s anti-union intimidation and harassment.

The workers vowed to obtain union authorization cards from well beyond the 60 percent minimum to demonstrate to UNICCO that there will be no division between janitors, only unity. They said they are aiming for a signed contract before classes begin in late August.

The workers and their supporters, including other labor activists, clergy and students, said this historic agreement will change the face of South Florida. No longer must low-wage workers settle for “their lot in life,” for below-poverty wages without benefits, for super-exploitation. The agreement opens the region for unionization, and the UM janitors pledged to help other workers achieve similar victories.

Workers and SEIU representatives alike credited unity for this victory — unity among workers and unity between workers and students, faculty, clergy and the wider community.

One participant said the victory was “a sweet way to celebrate International Workers Day!”