- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

Donna E. Shalala, the University of Miami president and a former Clinton administration official, is under increasing pressure from former congressional Democrats to intervene in a dispute between janitors and the contractor for which they work.

Nine janitors yesterday were in the ninth day of a hunger strike at the university.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and former Rep. David Bonior of Michigan have appealed to Miss Shalala to allow card-check recognition for 425 janitors at the university to end the dispute.

“This is about getting her attention,” said Mr. Bonior, who heads American Rights at Work, a nonprofit workers’ rights advocacy group.

Card check allows workers to join a union once a majority sign cards asking for representation.

Unicco Services Co., the Boston company that employs janitors at the university, has said it will allow a union vote, but only through a secret-ballot election sponsored by the National Labor Relations Board.

Under NLRB rules, the employer chooses the voting procedure. Miss Shalala hasn’t taken a position on which method to use in a referendum, leaving the decision to Unicco.

“We decided this is an issue between the contractor and the employees,” said Sergio Gonzalez, vice president for advancement at the University of Miami.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which hopes to organize 15,000 janitors nationwide this year, said Miss Shalala is not an impartial observer because she wields enormous influence over any contractor hired by the university.

“The very person who holds the health and human safety of these people in her hands is Donna Shalala,” SEIU President Andrew Stern said.

Miss Shalala served as health and human services secretary under President Clinton.

About 100 of the university’s janitors went on strike March 1 to protest wage, health care and labor policies. In response, Miss Shalala modified the school’s contract with Unicco March 16, raising the lowest wages the contractor can pay janitors from $6.40 an hour to $8.55. University groundskeepers, also employed by Unicco, had their lowest wages increased to $9.30 an hour.

Unicco spokesman Doug Bailey said the company will stand firm even if Miss Shalala decides card check is the appropriate method to determine union representation.

“We believe an election is the best way to go,” Mr. Bailey said.

Unicco is adamant that a secret-ballot election will produce fair results. Workers are more likely to vote their conscience in a secret ballot and are susceptible to pressure from pro-union forces in a less-secret card check campaign, Mr. Bailey said.

“If we agree to card check, we feel like we would be agreeing to a union and we don’t want the decision in our hands. It should be up to the workers in a secret ballot,” he said.

This week, a group of six students joined the nine janitors who are staging a hunger strike.

“We want what every worker in the country wants: a better future for their family,” Clara Vargas, one of the nine janitors, said through an interpreter.

The union has hired two nurses and a doctor to monitor the hunger strike, but it is difficult to determine when to intervene and urge janitors to end the perilous strategy, Mr. Stern said.

“We do not believe the current debate between the SEIU and Unicco over a card check vs. a secret-ballot election is worth jeopardizing the health of one student or one worker,” Miss Shalala wrote Wednesday on the university’s Web site (www.miami.edu).

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