University of Miami Students Rally as Janitors Prepare to Strike Over Wages

Four years ago, the 400 janitors who keep the University of Miami's campus clean went on a lengthy hunger strike and inspired two months of student protests in a fierce battle to earn a fair living wage. Looks like round two might be right around the corner.

The janitors are poised to strike again unless a last-minute deal is struck tomorrow over a cost-of-living increase. Meanwhile, dozens of students and faculty are protesting in support outside the student center this afternoon. "We just want a better life for our families," Maria Isabel Angel, a 57-year-old cleaner, tells Riptide.

In 2006, the janitors voted to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and then went on strike when Unicco -- the contractor employed by the university -- refused to meet their demands for a wage increase and health benefits. 

Everyone from pre-scandalicious John Edwards to national Teamsters presidents came to UM to support the janitors, who eventually won 25 percent raises and benefits and were allowed to elect their own union reps.

That contract expires tomorrow, and Unicco and the janitors are again at odds.

Eugenio Villasante, a spokesman for SEIU, declined to discuss the exact terms the cleaners are seeking. But he says Miami has seen an 8.2 percent cost-of-living increase since the last contract was negotiated and that workers expect their health benefits to continue.

The university declined to discuss the ongoing negotiations, releasing instead a brief statement: "The University of Miami is aware that contract negotiations have begun between UNICCO and SEIU. The University has every confidence that the parties involved will reach a successful resolution."

Angel, who cleans the eighth floor of a medical research center, says she's supporting an unemployed husband and helping her son pay for college. She earns $9.05 an hour and says she can't keep up with her bills.

"We're trying to get this increase because the cost of living is very expensive in Miami," she says. "We'd like to have a better salary for a better life."

A group of students and faculty planned to gather at lunchtime today to support the janitors and then deliver a letter to Donna Shalala, the university president, says Stephanie Sandhu, one of the student organizers. "As inflation goes up, you have to have an increase or you'll be left at a poverty level," she says.

The two sides will meet again tomorrow morning, Villasante says. If no one budges, the strike could begin soon thereafter.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink