Scribe laments SEIU dues hit

A year ago, 108 low-paid janitors and maintenance workers at Nova Southeastern University in Davie lost their jobs when the school switched contractors after a contentious union drive.

On Monday, about 30 people marked the anniversary with a rally. Former workers held up signs that read "Victory will be ours" and "The fight continues." The crowd, which included clergy, activists and members of the Service Employees International Union, chanted, "Justice will come. Justice will come."

Speakers criticized NSU President Ray Ferrero Jr. and TCB Systems, the local firm that declined to hire all the workers after replacing UNICCO, the previous contractor.

The cause seemed righteous, but the location was all wrong.

The protest took place outside the Broward County Governmental Center, attracting a lone Fort Lauderdale police cruiser and a few odd looks from county workers on smoking breaks.

There wasn't an NSU student, professor or administrator in sight.

The only current elected official to turn out was a state representative from Miami-Dade County, Ronald Brise.

"These fights are tiring," said Hiram Ruiz, a union representative.

Injustice is bad enough, but the indifference shown by the campus community over the past year seems worse.The university thumbed its nose at these workers, mostly immigrants from Haiti, Central and South America, and the response has been one big shrug.

A year ago, there was a lot of noise from U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, a former NSU employee, and Broward County commissioners, who threatened to cut funding to a county-subsidized campus library.

But the workers' cause never really gained traction.

It's a far cry from the happy ending workers had at the University of Miami. After a widely publicized hunger strike by workers and students, and a bruising public campaign against UM President Donna Shalala, UNICCO workers got union representation, better wages and benefits.

"We have hope, and we're going to continue to fight," said Trinidad Espinosa, 48, a displaced worker. "We never failed Nova. It was Nova who failed us."

Espinosa, of Miramar, made $8.50 an hour cleaning rooms at Nova Southeastern. Now she makes $8 an hour working part time at JC Penney in Pembroke Pines.

She was a vocal leader in the union drive, which she thought would lead to higher pay, health-care benefits and better working conditions from UNICCO, a Massachusetts-based contractor.

Instead, it led to a pink slip.

Soon after the union drive, Nova Southeastern replaced UNICCO with a consortium of smaller local firms. The university mandated better pay and health benefits, but the new contractors were allowed to hire and fire at will.

Espinosa said she applied four times with TCB Systems but was repeatedly rejected.

"It doesn't seem coincidental that the ones who organized and took the lead were the ones who lost their jobs," said the Rev. Bob Tywoniak, of St. George Catholic Church in Fort Lauderdale.

The last time I saw him, in March, he led a protest at a charity luncheon where Ferrero was honored. "We're still here," he told the workers Monday. "We have not abandoned you."

Most workers have found new jobs. According to the union, 25 to 35 have not.

The union has filed an unfair labor practices charge against NSU on behalf of the fired workers with the National Labor Relations Board. Ruiz said the case is pending.

I left a message with NSU Executive Vice President George Hanbury on Monday but didn't hear back. In the past, administrators have tried to distance the school from the controversy by saying the workers were not university employees.

"In Miami, Donna Shalala ultimately had a wider vision of the university and its place in the community," Ruiz said. "With Nova, there's just an incredible level of arrogance [with the administration]. And sadly, we learned early on that it's a commuter school where the students don't get emotionally involved."

The indifference goes on.


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