Unicco workers victorious

Debra Yearby celebrates the new three-year contract with fellow university workers. Lindsay Brown//Photo Editor

Eric Brakken was all smiles yesterday afternoon as he was shaking hands, kissing, hugging and high-fiving University of Miami janitors and landscapers at St. Bede’s Episcopal Chapel. A few minutes later, a worker came into the church yelling, “Si se puede!” or “Yes, we can!” the workers’ unofficial catchphrase. Unlike the rally from two weeks ago when they had charged determination in their voices, everyone in the building yelled back the slogan with prideful cheer- this time, they had something to be happy about.

After two months of difficult negotiations, 32 BJ SEIU, the union that represents these university workers, got a three-year contract with increased wages, seniority status, increased vacation time and other benefits.

Brakken, the Florida director of 32 BJ SEIU, and the union’s bargaining committee tried to come to an agreement with UNICCO, a company that contracts the workers to UM, and university representatives last week. A fair contract, however, was hard to come by. The workers remained limited to a one-year contract with some subtle changes: 25-cent wage increases and having Martin Luther King Day as a vacation day.

The worker’s union attempted fair negotiations one last time on Wednesday, the day the workers’ four-year contract expired. Stephanie Sandhu, a member of S.T.A.N.D., the student organization that helped rally student and faculty support for fair contract negotiations, got a call from Brakken Wednesday at 9 p.m.  UNICCO, the university and the union had finally reached an agreement.

“When I got the call, I was thinking that this victory has shown the power of students, faculty and workers fighting together simply by mobilizing campus support for workers’ basic requests,” Sandhu said.

The three-year contract provides 25-cent raises the first year and 10 cents more the second and third year.

Also, seniority status has improved significantly. Before, UNICCO would give the better jobs to new hires. Now, UNICCO must keep jobs posted for five days, allowing workers of seniority a chance to bid to change shifts or get a higher classified job.

Workers get a one-week vacation after a year, two weeks after five years, three weeks after eight years, and 17 days after 15 years, with approval six months in advance.

Another benefit was the inclusion of English and computer classes, since many of the workers speak little or no English and have no time to learn other skills.

Leonor Ramirez, 40, has been working for seven years as a janitor at UM. As a mother who puts her two boys through college, she is happy with the outcome.

“Considering the general economic situation, it helps for something,” Ramirez said in Spanish.

Four years ago, the workers, students and faculty went on a nine-week strike with marches, sit-ins and a hunger strike, which provided the workers with a union, four-year contract and fair living standards.

Brakken sees the contract renewal and added benefits as another victory. He said UNICCO and UM did not want to go through more strikes, protests, voting and lengthy negotiations.

“We showed an example in Miami that if workers stay united even in difficult times, they can make progress,” he said. “I hope we laid the groundwork for a positive relationship with UNICCO and UM going forward.”

Andrea Concepcion may be contacted at aconcepcion@themiamihurricane.com.