Wednesday April 5, 2006

What we've learned from the University of Miami Janitors' strike (updated)

About 900 service workers from the University of Miami went on strike March 1, demanding a living wage, health benefits, and union representation. Of course, that wasn’t the beginning; they had been making those demands for a long time, more recently assisted by the SEIO, who set up a fancy website and organized some community pressure on the school. In particular, the pressure focused on University of Miami President Donna Shalala (who, coincidentally, was director of the Health and Human Services under the Clinton administration), who established a group to conduct a review of compensation and benefits to contract employees on February 23 (source).

Huh? She wanted to know how much her janitors were making, so she “established a group” to “conduct a review?” What ever happened to “making a phone call” to “your human-resources department?” Oh, and how long were we expecting to wait to hear back from this group? The link above says “within a month.” We probably shouldn’t be too surprised, given how these beuracracies work.

Now, the university does not employ the service workers directly; it contracts with UNICCO, which promptly set up a couple of cynical websites, including plain vanilla and blog flavor to combat the bad PR coming out of all this (the fact is, though, that UNICCO doesn’t set the wages – the school does). The blog is particularly hilarious; for example, in responding to this document, “Why the Protest Continues: It’s All About Democracy” (a petition by the UM faculty and students in support of the strikers), it says “I would like to take the time to refute their points one at a time, but since their missive is four pages long and virtually each page has a factual inaccuracy, I’ll stick to the more salient points.” The “missive” takes three screens on my monitor, with a generously-sized font, but even if true, “virtually each page” means that the author found three factual inaccuracies and couldn’t be bothered to address them all.

Anyway, Donna Shalala seemed pretty cool under fire, considering she had no authority to do what was being asked of her; for that, the university’s Board of Trustees has to vote. That they did, exactly a month after the announcement about the study. In a funny coincidence, the decision came down on the same day that the strikers staged a protest at Gloria Estefan’s house (she’s a one of the Trustees). There’s a joke here about “if you want something done, go to Gloria,” but nevermind.

The strike continues; the issue now is how the unionization of the service workers will proceed. UM students have gotten in on the act with a small-scale sit-in. And workers at other universities are talking about similar actions.

It’s nice to see that collective bargaining is alive and well. This gets into a lot of issues, including the labor market vs. housing costs, illegal immigration, and the minimum wage. Market forces are great, but the collective bargaining power of employees is a market force that has to be reckoned with. The salaries we’re talking about here are roughly half of Miami’s $35,000 median income.

Update: A few more sources, which may round out my musings:

*“UNICCO’s response”: to said allegations.

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  1. Jonathan    Wed Apr 5, 01:59 PM #  

    Bargaining already takes place through the market as workers and employers negotiate mutually acceptable terms. What the pro-union people are asking for is a government-enforced union monopoly on provision of some types of labor services at the U of M.

    This will invariably lead to higher wages for the workers who currently have jobs. However, the increased wages will not come without costs. The costs will likely include higher tuition charges, which I don’t really care about, but also fewer jobs for the people on the bottom who need the work most. If your work is only worth $5.50/hr and your employer now has to pay union wages starting at $9/hr (or whatever), your job may disappear. Or to put it another way, if the U of M employs some number of janitors at $5.50 and hour and is forced to raise the wages it pays to $9/hr, the long-term result is likely to be the employment of a smaller number of more experienced janitors at the higher wage. Restrictions on labor markets tend to help the people in the middle and on the top, whose work is already worth more, at the expense of the people on the bottom, who are easily priced out of jobs by well intended wage increases.

  2. John    Wed Apr 5, 02:49 PM #  

    BRAVO! Alesh, you came through. In our “right to work state” (if that is not some Orwellian double speak) we have made union busting legal. Note that only the poorest states, mostly in the deep South, are right to work. For now we have to have some monumental movement to allow for unionization and an effective strike. It’s not market forces that we have to contend with, it is the power of organized capital to dictate the terms of the labor capital relationship both by direct contract and by influence on law and enforcement (government).

    Demand of wages creates more technology, and an increased standard of living for everyone. (Of course that is sometimes bypassed with imperialism and some other cheap wage arrangement, ahem, undocumented workers.)If we don’t believe that is the way it turns out, we are rejecting market capitalism. Might as well go back to slavery, huh Jonathan.

    These Unicco workers are no different from the rest of us. Break down of privacy, separation between the state and the private sector, curtailed consumer protection, end of protection against discrimination of all kinds, end of workers’ protection of all kinds and reduced access to redress, etc- all of these things are the consequence of inbalance in the worker/capitalist relationship. (Thanks Jeb and George, crony buggering, fake ass conservatives.)

    Remember, our government provides services for the benefit of capitalists, through banking guarantees, treasury and federal reserve policy, research and development, separate corporate taxing regulations and infrastructure spending aimed cheifly at support of large corporations. And it should.

    Finally I should point out that low wages; regressive taxation (lottery, property and “sin taxes” vs. income and capital gains taxation); lack of public spending on infrastructure, health care, unemployment insurance and education; and anti-unionization are the notable policies of the poorest states. The best educated/trained workers migrate to the most worker friendly environment. Ironically, if it were not for government redistribution of wealth from high income states and regions to public spending in poorer states we would still have the wage differentials that we saw pre-1960. Ya damn backwater commies.

  3. alesh    Wed Apr 5, 07:16 PM #  

    Rushed~ I claim a minor case of dyslexia. Thx.

    Jonathan~ That’s the standard libertarian/republican argument. I have some sympathy with it, but I don’t really buy it, especially in this case. I think that if you do the math and see what it’s like to live on $6.40 (Nickel and Dimed, anyone?), if you consider that Miami has unheard of unemployment, if you talk to the workers combined, and if you realize that raising wages will tend to raise all wages at the bottom, you come out realizing this is a good thing.

    You may not realize that from a cheap-labor-needing business perspective, but you realize it from a humanitarian perspective.

    John~ Right on, though I suspect that you would go further then I to redress some of this stuff. I must say, though, that I’m not sure why some of these workers don’t go where their labor would draw more money. I mean, lots of them have already left their country; why the attachment to Miami?

    Ellen~ Can you maybe be just a bit more specific? (Hint: I’m aware that this isn’t my best work.)

  4. Jonathan    Wed Apr 5, 09:35 PM #  

    Alesh, thanks. I am not arguing that low wages are good. I am arguing that unionization, by raising wages above market levels, makes workers on the bottom less employable, and that it is better to be employed at a low wage than unemployed at a higher one.

  5. Slave Owner    Wed Apr 5, 10:26 PM #  

    I don’t get any of this. Why aren’t these people just happy to be here in America, at the very bottom of the labor force cleaning toilets and picking up garbage, working for a pittance with no future here and nowhere to go? Where did we go wrong in this country?

  6. A.T.    Wed Apr 5, 10:55 PM #  

    Alesh, you’re only getting better. Nice post.

  7. Jonathan    Wed Apr 5, 11:43 PM #  

    Slave Owner, how does a worker advance in the labor force and have a future if he gets priced out of his job by union-driven wage increases?

  8. Manola B    Thu Apr 6, 12:28 AM #  

    Re: Alesh, I’m not so sure what Ellen meant either. a) This is a blog b) you do plenty as is with weekly posting which I think I can speak on everyone’s behalf is very appreciated and c) as tired as my eyes are, nothing major jumped out at me. Plus, you covered a great deal of ground and provided numerous links to additional info. What gives?

    Anyway, I know why the janitors don’t make a decent wage at my alma mater. All the dough is spent on landscaping and fertilizing. Luscious grounds are more important than janitors. I find it outrageous that “students” should pay for an increase in sub-strata living wage with their tuition.

    So, who’s cleaning the toilets at UM during the strike?

    (PS … you should see what adjunct teachers make … it’s disgusting)

  9. What We've Learned    Thu Apr 6, 12:50 AM #  

    Do you really think anyone has learned anything from this? Do you think people will stop calling “maids” from the back of New Times? You’re talking about forces beyond our control. Bush wants to let illegal immigrants remain in the country. They have no education, and no means to obtain it. Outside of Miami, they barely speak the official language. So they get shitty jobs. This situation (and I understand with UNICCO these are not illegal immigrants) is a political vise out of peoples’ hands except when the media jumps on it as injustice. Not to even start with where half the stuff we’ve purchased is and how it and by WHOM it IS made. Blogs like Critical Miami will save the world, one hit at a time. Surely. Except this is Miami, deal with it. There are a ton of Miamians who’d be A-OK with these jobs, instead they’re building all these goddamn condos.

  10. Manola B    Thu Apr 6, 10:13 AM #  

    “There are a ton of Miamians who’d be A-OK with these jobs, instead they’re building all these goddamn condos.”

    Is this a dangling modifier? Does this mean that the tons of Miamians are construction workers?

  11. John    Thu Apr 6, 06:51 PM #  

    In the book Catch 22 isn’t there that line, “death to all modifiers”. (Man, can you imagine what that would do to Miamista posts!)

    Anyway, let me offer this deeply considered response to Ellen G.- Screw you! Regardless of Alesh’s humility, this was a well written, thoughtful post.

    I have dealt a lot with poor/immigrant youth and families. I agree that many Latin American immigrants come to Miami b/c of the language and culture (not to mention the weather), even if it means a lack of opportunity. Still, there is reason we should change the environment of Miami to increase opportunity. These changes have to come in culture, economic structure (and yes, the increase of English use and facility).

    All that is to say, Miami (or the US domestic economy) should not have people into a permanent underclass of low wages, immigrant or not. High wages, a permeable middle class and an expanding intellectual based economy is what separates the US from the Third World (and apparently Miami). That will mean less (low paying) jobs for those people who are unwilling to adapt, i.e. upgrade education and skills. As long as the educational opportunities and support are there fine. Unfortunately, in Miami they aren’t yet.

    If this all sounded very George Bush/Republican (in sentiment or expression) sue me.