Members of the Faculty Bargaining Unit,

I am writing to share with you some of the background on the remarkable announcement of last week: That the cleaners and janitors at FIU are being brought back as state employees, represented by a union, with significantly higher wages and benefits. As you probably recall, the reputation of the University of Miami took an ugly hit last spring when the administration and Board of Trustees at UM resisted the union organizing drive of the cleaners and janitors there. The situation was complicated because UM had “outsourced”, or contracted-out the cleaning work to a private company, so that the cleaners were not directly UM employees. At one point UM offered to pay much higher wages and benefits, but instructed the company to refuse to recognize the union. The workers turned down the offer and held out for their main goal: dignity and respect, which, they contended, could only come from having a union and a voice at the table. They wanted a say in their own working lives. Several workers resorted to a hunger strike to show their determination.

After weeks of conflict that received nation-wide attention, UM finally realized that the cleaners would settle for no less than recognition of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as their bargaining agent, and agreed to pay its contractor more so that the cleaners could receive health benefits and a significant raise. A new bargaining agreement was reached this summer.

The situation at FIU was similar to that at UM: about a decade ago, most of the cleaning and janitorial work at FIU (except for the dorms and the Graham Center) had been outsourced or privatized. The typical cleaner is earning only $6.40 an hour (about $13,000 a year) with no health insurance or other benefits. Many have concerns about the safety of their working conditions (no gloves or masks, for example, despite working with noxious chemicals). Most important to the workers at FIU: without a union, no dignity, no respect, and no place at the table to have some control over their working lives.

After the victory at UM, the SEIU began organizing cleaners at FIU. By the end of summer more than 80% of the cleaners at FIU had signed cards saying they wanted to form a union and wanted SEIU as their bargaining agent. In early September the FIU Joint Labor Council, a new collaboration between UFF, AFSCME (the union that represents secretaries, mechanics, and other workers at FIU), and SEIU (which already represented nurses at FIU), sponsored a meeting for faculty and others to hear the demands of the cleaners.

It was some meeting. About thirty of the cleaners, all immigrant, Hispanic women, attended on their lunch break. We had microphones available, and simultaneous translation was provided by one of the SEIU organizers. These women were not experienced public speakers by any means, but once they got over their shyness and started speaking they had no trouble communicating. It was obvious they were passionate about their cause and determined to win. Like the UM workers, they said their most important goal was to be treated with dignity and respect, but they were also fighting for better wages, health insurance and other benefits like vacation and bereavement time, and safety on the job.

After the meeting, Faculty Senate Chair Bruce Hauptli and I shared notes. We feared that FIU was about to go through a reputation-damaging episode as UM had. We contacted the administration and urged them to do the right thing by our custodial workers and avoid the strife and bitterness of the UM strike. Nearly three weeks passed after that meeting, however, with no apparent movement by the administration.

Last Wednesday, a large group of cleaners marched on the president’s office on their lunch hour. As it happened, however, the administration had already made its decision that very morning on how to deal with the cleaners’ demands. President Maidique was able to announce to an astonished and delighted group of cleaners that they would once again become employees of the university.

As such, all full-time employees will receive the FIU “living wage” of $20,000 per year or $9.58 per hour. As state employees they will be eligible for the same health insurance benefits available to faculty and other employees, and will receive other benefits like vacation time, bereavement time, tuition-free classes for themselves or family members, and so on. Perhaps most important, cleaners at FIU are in the bargaining unit represented by AFSCME, so they will be part of a union and have a place at the table.

One important issue still needs to be handled carefully: State law requires that these positions be posted and opened to applicants for employment. The administration has said that the cleaners currently employed by the private contractors will be interviewed first. And it would certainly be possible when advertising the positions to make clear that applicants with prior experience as cleaners in a university setting would be given priority. We need to be vigilant that cleaners who were outspoken and emerged as leaders in the struggle for a union not be victimized.

This is a great moment for FIU, and we should all be generous with our praise and gratitude. First and foremost, we should recognize the courage and determination of the cleaners themselves. As bad as a $13,000 a year job without benefits is, it still takes an enormous amount of courage to risk that job—which may be the only thing keeping a whole family afloat—to fight for something better. Our cleaners are true heroes, and we should find every way we can to recognize their courage and the inspiration they provide to the rest of us. Congratulate every cleaner you see.

The leaders and organizers of the Service Employees International Union, Local 11, have earned our gratitude and respect, and deserve our congratulations. When the proposal was announced to bring the cleaners back as state employees, and into a bargaining unit already represented by AFSCME, the SEIU praised the settlement. Despite the fact that SEIU had done the hard work of organizing these workers, and despite the fact that 80% of these cleaners signed cards saying they wanted the SEIU to represent them in bargaining with their private employers, SEIU’s response was to celebrate the victory of these workers in their fight for dignity and a better standard of living. SEIU has shown why they have a reputation of being one of the best unions in the country, one that knows how to organize, and one that has the best interest of workers at heart. We look forward to working with them again in the future.

A number of FIU students organized to support the cleaners in their fight for a union, and many had earlier supported the UM cleaners. Let’s hope this is a leading indicator of a resurgence of student activism in the causes of social justice.

We congratulate the FIU administration for doing the right thing and making us all proud. President Mitch Maidique has earned our congratulations and our thanks. So has David Parker, the Chair of the FIU Board of Trustees, and his fellow Trustees who approved the proposal Friday.

But most importantly, our thanks and gratitude should go to Vice President Vivian Sanchez, who gathered the facts of a complicated situation; who investigated how similar situations had been handled at twenty universities around the country and sought advice from administrators at many of them; who as Chief Financial Officer had to run the numbers to make sure the solution was a fiscally responsible one; and who then persuaded the rest of the administration that bringing the workers back in as FIU employees was the best solution for both the workers and the university.

Someone mentioned on Friday that everyone on campus seemed to be walking with their head a little bit higher, proud to be associated with an institution that could find a way to treat the least rewarded among us more humanely. FIU is now leading the turn against “privatization”, which often is nothing more than an attempt to solve budget problems by taking away from those who can already least afford it.

Let me close by saying that we had a very successful New Faculty Luncheon a couple of weeks ago, with nearly forty new faculty attending and lots of “old” faculty as well. Many of the new faculty joined as members of UFF and we welcome them warmly and urge them to become union activists as well. If you haven’t become a member yet, a membership form may be downloaded at http://www.uff-fiu.org/nindex.php/uff.form.html

Alan

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[last updated: October 18 2006]