Nova to Workers: Drop Dead

Janitors go jobless for months, and students don't give a damn

¨I should give that list to Ray Ferrero,¨ López says in Spanish.

Ferrero was paid a salary of $413,308 for the 2005-06 school year, according to Nova´s most recent tax filing with the IRS. He also drew $22,000 in benefits and deferred compensation, plus $143,547 under an expense account, for a total of $578,855.

López has been on unemployment benefits since February, when Nova switched contractors for its janitorial services.

Nova undergrad Sean Burque
Amy Guthrie
Nova undergrad Sean Burque
A late-April prayer vigil in front of the Nova library.
Amy Guthrie
A late-April prayer vigil in front of the Nova library.


¨The union never told us that we could lose our jobs,¨ she recalls. ¨They said the law would protect us.¨ She pauses to inspect chips in the purple paint on her fingernails. ¨And now we´re out. Do you think I -- a mother with kids to feed -- would have gotten involved if I thought for even a second that I´d lose my job?¨

It was the best job López ever had. As a lead cleaner, she supervised seven other custodial workers and earned a premium wage of $10.40 an hour, $4 more than an entry-level housekeeper. Plus, the schedule was great. Entering at 6 p.m. for the graveyard shift meant that López could ferry her sons to their separate schools and extracurricular activities or nurse them at home on days when they fell ill. Her husband, Pedro, would take over in the evenings, after grueling days working as a landscaper.

López has applied for more than a dozen positions elsewhere but believes that when she writes the name of her last employer, Unicco, on an application, it´s a red flag. She imagines those making the hiring decisions thinking, ¨She´s one of them -- she´ll try to start a union here too,¨ before tossing her application in the trash.

The union fight hasn´t been totally in vain, she reckons. New hires at Nova now have health insurance, which López compares to winning the lottery. Good for them -- but she wishes her name were on the payroll too, even if it meant lower wages than she used to enjoy.

And López wonders aloud about the students who never embraced the custodians´ cause: Are they middle class? Do they think she´s beneath them?

When the SEIU´s South Florida union drive began, 23-year-old Tanya Aquino was in her last semester at the University of Miami. At the urging of her mother, she had ditched a part-time job so she could focus on her studies and enjoy the months leading up to graduation. Little did Aquino´s mom know her daughter would pour all her free time into mobilizing support for janitors. Aquino, originally from Melbourne, Florida, helped organize 400 people in the biggest march on UM´s campus since the civil rights movement. She also lasted nine days on a hunger strike. Swept up in the union effort, the honors student still hasn´t finished all the coursework she needs for a diploma. But she has no regrets. Taking part in those labor actions, she says, ¨is the greatest thing I did in college.¨ And she has a new job as a communications assistant for SEIU Local 11.

At 25, Sean Burque is years older than the typical college junior. After high school, he worked for a spell in the pharmacy of an Orlando Walgreens, saving cash to pay for a chunk of his undergraduate degree at Nova. But scholarships cover most expenses for this diligent biology major. His father is a retired teamster. Both of his parents emigrated to the United States from Europe. Considering his background, Burque perhaps should have empathized with Nova´s custodial workers, most of whom are hard-working immigrants. Yet when the workers tried to organize, Burque and other officers in Nova´s undergraduate student government association opted for a neutral stance on the issue. Most students, they insist, simply didn´t care. And many sided instead with Nova´s administration.

¨Honestly, when you´re paying $20,000 to $30,000 a year to go here, you focus on your studies,¨ Burque says. ¨A lot of students are really driven, either because they come from a bad background or their parents expect them to do well here because they´re paying so much money.¨

Nova students have been hit in recent semesters with sharp tuition increases. An undergraduate who entered in the fall 2003 semester would have seen her per-semester tuition spike $1,575 by the time she graduated. That´s a 21 percent increase over four years. Tuition for the fall 2007 semester will be $9,450. Facing rising education bills and debt, many students linked better pay and benefits for the janitors to higher tuition.

From the outbreak of the union tensions, President Ferrero sent letters to the entire student body informing them of the administration´s stance. In his first letter, dated March 28, 2006, he stated that Unicco employees received ¨a compensation package that is competitive with other institutions in the South Florida marketplace.¨ Unicco says its average employee at Nova was earning $7.24 an hour, well below the $12.02 rate dictated for workers without health insurance by Broward County´s Living Wage Ordinance. (The ordinance applies only to contractors working directly for the county.)

In the same letter, Ferrero explained that Unicco workers could ¨advance their knowledge base and improve their lives by earning a degree at our university.¨ That allusion to tuition waivers resonated with Burque. ¨For any student on campus, that´s like gold,¨ the student says. ¨From our standpoint, that´s a free ride to improve yourself a degree from a reputable university. That´s more than any raise anybody could give you... Is a dollar or two dollars more an hour really gonna help? Or is it better if you get a degree and you´re making $40,000 to $50,000 a year?¨

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