UM janitors are set to end their two-month strike after the union trying to organize the workers reached an agreement with Unicco.
BY NIALA BOODHOO
It took a hunger strike, a student sit-in and countless protests, but striking University of Miami janitors will be back on the job Wednesday, following a settlement in the two-month labor dispute.
University contractor Unicco Services and the union organizing the janitors, the Service Employees International Union, said late Monday they had reached agreement on the union election process.
A neutral third party, the American Arbitration Association, will verify pledge cards signed by workers in support of SEIU. A 60 percent majority will be needed by Aug. 1 in order for the union to win recognition.
''I'm going to return with my head held high, protected by the name of the union, which is rare in the state of Florida,'' said janitor Maritza Paz, just after the striking workers voted to accept the agreement. She has worked for Unicco for 11 years.
UM raised the worker's wages by at least 25 percent and offered healthcare coverage to the employees a few weeks into the strike, which began March 1. But it persisted, and the sticking point was the method through which SEIU could be elected. The union wanted workers to be able to sign pledge cards, also called a card check agreement, but the company wanted an election run by the National Labor Relations Board.
Unicco spokeswoman Cristin Brown said the company tried to do the ''best thing'' for all parties involved in the dispute.
'We feel that it at the very least preserves our employees' right to choose,'' she said.
Most likely, the University of Miami pressured Unicco into accepting a form of card check, but the settlement is still an all-around compromise, said labor expert Richard Hurd.
The third party verifying union pledges and a 60 percent threshold -- higher than typical standards of 50 percent, or 50 percent plus one -- ensures that if the union wins the election, it will be with a clear majority, he said.
''I don't think the company caved; I think the university decided it no longer wanted to be subject to such public pressure,'' said Hurd, a Cornell University industrial relations professor. ''It's not unusual for universities to resist for a while, but they thrive on their public image.''
Last week, former vice presidential candidate John Edwards and Teamsters President James P. Hoffa became the most recent of a stream of hundreds of people, including faculty, students and religious leaders who descended on the campus to support the workers.
The university issued a four-line statement saying it had maintained neutrality throughout the dispute and encouraged the two sides to negotiate a resolution.
''It is now up to the UNICCO employees to decide,'' the statement said.
SEIU's Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina said he was ''ecstatic'' about the agreement, just after he ate a piece of bread to break his 11-day fast Monday evening.
''I think it's a wonderful beginning for Miami, and it sets an example for the rest of the country,'' he said, adding he thought University President Donna Shalala's work in the background made a ''big difference''.
UM student Jacob Coker-Dukowitz, who helped lead many of the student protests, called the agreement a wonderful step.
''I feel like students have gotten a better education out of this than they could have gotten in any classroom,'' said Coker-Dukowitz, who will be a senior after school ends next week. ''This isn't just UM, it's Miami.''