Nova to Workers: Drop Dead

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

But if the Unicco workers at Nova were eligible for tuition waivers, Rosario López says that message never got to her. Besides, the 40-year-old would have to learn English before she could even attempt university classes. And, really, her priority is the education of her two sons. She feels it´s too late for her. Plus, she considers herself privileged just to have completed high school. Some of her coworkers at Unicco weren´t even literate, she says. Unicco says that, to the best of its knowledge, all its employees at Nova were authorized to work in the United States.

For María Vega, earning a couple more dollars an hour was a point of pride. After nine years cleaning at Nova, she had worked her way up to an hourly wage of $10.75. Even though she wore union buttons while on the job and participated in the strike, she was offered a position in February with TCB Systems, one of the contractors Nova brought in to replace Unicco.

When Vega reported for duty at the Health Professions Division building, a former Unicco manager brandished a list of people who would be rehired. Vega heard her name but not those of several coworkers standing nearby, including Rosario López. Vega set about training new hires, as she had with Unicco. But as the day wore on, she was told she would be demoted from her role as a lead cleaner. It was unclear how the shift in responsibilities would impact her pay until three days later. The new hourly figure: $7.90.

The Current's editor, Alisha VanHoose
The Current's editor, Alisha VanHoose
Managing Editor Paul Saneaux
Managing Editor Paul Saneaux


Vega felt used, having trained all those new hires only to be offered the same pay as them. She had lost the benefit of seniority and the additional $2.85 an hour she used to take home. Recalling the incident, her meek demeanor turns bold. ¨I felt indignant,¨ she remembers. She quit on the spot.

Few passersby stop to watch a late-April prayer vigil that the SEIU organized in front of the Nova library. Most pause long enough to grab the bright yellow sheets of paper with the headline ¨We want our jobs back!¨

The protesters know the drill. They should be able to hold their ground for at least 30 minutes before campus security kicks them out. It´s enough time to get in a gospel reading, some prayers, and songs such as ¨This Little Light of Mine.¨

Leaning over an industrial-sized garbage can, two black janitors stop to contemplate the fate of their former coworkers.

¨They should just give them their jobs back,¨ one says to the other in a hushed voice. But when an onlooker approaches, the pair falls silent. They glance off into the distance and shake their heads -- no, they can´t comment about the displaced workers.

The 20 protesters, including four children, walk briskly toward a parking garage. Security guards trail them with a slow gait that seems to warn: Leave the campus or else.

Among the protesters is Wanda Rodríguez, 45. For 11 years, Rodríguez emptied garbage cans, mopped floors, and performed other cleaning duties at Nova for Unicco. Rodríguez wasn´t invited to reapply for her job after the contractor switch and is convinced that supporting the union got her blacklisted. Rodríguez´s walk is normally labored -- big hips and thighs slow her down -- but she quickly breaks away from the fleeing protesters to double back and greet the familiar face of one of the janitors leaning on the garbage can.

Tall and lanky, the young black man in a nylon skullcap and baggy gray overalls makes custodial garb look stylish.

¨Remember me?¨ Rodríguez asks him. ¨How you doing? You know we´re coming back soon -- sooner than you think -- OK? So just hold your horses.¨

¨All right,¨ he manages, flashing a shy smile.

She throws him a high-five, which he catches, plastic surgical glove and all. ¨Go back to your buildings so no one sees you!¨ she warns.

Much of Nova´s 300-acre campus is easily accessible to visitors, which makes sense. The Nova library, for example, is partially funded by local taxpayers. Still, security guards are quick to swoop down on anyone trying to use the campus as a sounding board for public opinion. Threatened with arrest for trespassing on private property, outspoken contrarians usually leave swiftly and voluntarily.

Such was the case in April 2006, when Barry Sacharow asked if he could borrow a microphone from some fraternity members. At the time, Sacharow was running for a seat in the Florida Legislature, to represent District 99, which covers Hollywood and some of Pembroke Pines. An ardent activist who traces his outspoken ways to the Vietnam era, the 52-year-old Sacharow was at Nova that day alongside the SEIU. Sacharow is also a student at the university, enrolled in a master´s-of-education program, building on his Nova bachelor´s degree.

The frat boys didn´t want to lend Sacharow the mic, not even for two minutes. His political spiel about the right to unionize would put a damper on Greek Week, they said. Then they complained to security that some old dude was harassing them. Security asked Sacharow to leave.

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