The battle between ABM employees, their parent company and the University of Miami continued last Friday, Feb. 10. A crowd of ABM janitors, union workers and students gathered at the entrance to UM, holding signs scrawled with words of protest and demands.
“Workers are not machines,” one read. “El pueblo trabajador no se detiene,” another read. “The working people don’t stop,” in English.
Cars blew their horns as they passed, eliciting cheers and whoops from the demonstrators.
ABM is not a household name, yet University of Miami students surely recognize it, peppered across the university on trucks and employees’ shirts. The custodial staff at UM works for ABM, cleaning bathrooms, classrooms, libraries and more. Their work at the university is unmistakable.
UM Employee Student Alliance (UMESA) led the protest in concordance with Service Employees International Union 32BJ (32BJ), the organization that represents UM’s janitorial staff union.
The protest was the first in 10 months. It represents the culmination of a few unmet demands, including the filling of 40 vacancies, no pay for on-call hours and allegedly verbally abusive managers.
ABM employees began protesting their company and the University of Miami in fall, 2019. The movement intensified in spring, 2020 during Covid-19.
Since April, these issues have persisted.
Thus far, janitors, through their union, have achieved a dollar increase in hourly wage per year, paid sick leave which became especially important during Covid-19 and resolving issues between workers and their managers. These provisions are mandated through the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the workers and ABM. In a committee that included 8-10 janitors, the union negotiated the current CBA and continue advocating for workers’ rights.
“The union would welcome ABM doing an economic reopener of the contract so that these workers can have higher wages to account for inflation and increased cost of living in Miami-Dade,” said Alexi Cardona, the communications specialist for 32BJ.
The CBA is a two-way street, meaning the workers need to respect its current conditions as they protest for change.
Yet, some say these issues have created an untenable situation.
One worker alleged doing the work of two to three people in a single night. He described spending the night working, while his partners left early. He approached his supervisor about the issue, seemingly in confidentiality. However, the supervisor shared the claims with the worker’s partners, instigating a physical fight between the worker and his partners.
The Miami Hurricane has not been able to corroborate these claims.
“Cómo es posible,” the worker said. “Eso es lo que realmente por estamos acá.”
“How is this possible,” in English. “That’s what we’re really here for.”
To protect the identity of the workers, The Miami Hurricane has chosen to keep them anonymous. Workers are not allowed to speak to the press under their CBA.
The anonymous worker remains hopeful, particularly after Friday’s protest.
Call-and-response chants included, “Que queremos? Justicia! Cuando? Ahora!”
“What do we want? Justice! When? Now,” in English.
The chants eventually morphed into only, “Cuando? Ahora!”
Then, finally, a steady “Si, se puede!”
“Yes, we can,” in English.
Going forward, the workers, union and students have also called on UM President Julio Frenk to meet directly with workers. This has been a longstanding demand, not yet met by Frenk.
“It’s really important that a President meets with workers at a university, and shows that he hears them and he cares about the conditions here,” said Kativon Makary, a fourth-year community wellbeing and psychology student in UM’s graduate program.
Makary and other organizers foresee future protests.
“We’re still going to try to organize and be strategic,” Makary said. “The university should expect escalation if they don’t meet the demands.”
Makary made it clear that this escalation would fall within the restraints of UM’s policy regarding protests which prohibit any form of violence.
Students who wish to get involved with UMESA can visit their Instagram account @umesamiami and can learn more about ABM via https://www.abm.com/about/.
Correction, Feb. 13, 9:40 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly described 32BJ as a third-party organization. The article has been updated to reflect that janitors are the union and were integral in negotiating the CBA.