- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The nation’s largest union hopes to organize 15,000 janitors nationwide this year, and the University of Miami — run by former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala — has become an early battleground.

The Service Employees International Union, with 1.8 million members, is counting on support from students and community leaders to organize about 480 janitors at the South Florida campus and establish a foothold in a metropolitan area that employs an estimated 20,000 janitors.

“If we can succeed in Miami, that will be the second major city in the South where we organized janitors,” SEIU Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina said. “But it has been harder because we haven’t been able to find the same kind of employers that are sympathetic to workers.”

The Miami campaign follows the union’s victory in November in Houston, where 5,300 janitors from scores of office buildings agreed to join the SEIU and are preparing to enter contract negotiations.

The SEIU’s achievement in Houston was viewed as groundbreaking because the union signed up so many workers at once, and it is hoping for a repeat in Florida. In addition to the campaign to organize University of Miami janitors, the union hopes to organize workers in South Florida’s condominiums.

The union’s achievement in Houston also was notable because it occurred in the union-wary South, where right-to-work laws don’t require employees to pay union dues even in workplaces where a majority votes in favor of union membership.

A key to the organizing victory in Houston was its broad scope, said Richard Hurd, professor of labor relations at Cornell University.

“Organizing in the South is very difficult, there’s no doubt about it. Any union that wants to organize in the South has to think of it in broader terms than workplace by workplace,” he said.

More than 225,000 janitors already belong to the SEIU, which began its Justice for Janitors organizing campaign in 1985. The union has negotiated 27 master contracts for janitors in markets including the District, Chicago and New York.

Efforts in Miami and Houston also are significant because many janitors there are immigrants. The SEIU and other unions in the breakaway Change to Win Federation, which formed last year, have said organizing immigrant workers is important if the labor movement expects to grow.

Last week, the SEIU joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Laborers International Union to press Congress to pass immigration reform that legalizes the estimated 11 million illegal aliens in the country.

Legalizing immigrants could be a boon for union organizing efforts, Mr. Medina said.

The SEIU’s organizing drive in Miami is an effort to boost wages for janitors at the university who earn an average of $7.53 an hour and have no employee-sponsored health care.

University officials have stayed out of the organizing fight because the school outsources the work to Boston-based cleaning firm Unicco Services Co.

Unicco janitors at Harvard University earn an average of $13 to $14 an hour.

Unicco spokesman Doug Bailey said the company is willing to hold a National Labor Relations Board-sponsored election to determine whether University of Miami janitors join the union, but SEIU organizers hope to persuade the company to let workers join the union if a majority of janitors sign cards indicating they want union representation.

“We’ve been asking them to have an election and we will honor the outcome of an election,” Mr. Bailey said.

Getting the company to acknowledge a card-check program and avoid an NLRB election likely will require getting university officials involved, SEIU spokeswoman Renee Asher said.

“Part of the initiative on campus is convincing the university and Donna Shalala that they need a responsible contractor policy,” she said.

Last week the Labor Department said 200,000 people joined unions in 2005, bringing the total union work force to 15.7 million workers. Just 7.8 percent of the private sector work force belongs to a union, the department said. Among all U.S. workers, 12.5 percent belong to a union, down from 20.1 percent in 1983.

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