Nova to Workers: Drop Dead
In the brochures, everything is copacetic at Nova Southeastern University´s main campus in Davie. Under periwinkle skies sprinkled with fluffy clouds, students stroll past emerald lawns and sleek, modern buildings. The publicity shots show a school brimming with coeds deep in concentration or engaged in animated debate. The message: This student body is involved. These youngsters are always up for a dynamic debate.
Those lively interactions were all staged, however. With so many students commuting to class or seeking advanced degrees while they work, campus life at Nova is pretty limited. Most days, there are few souls in sight on the grounds apart from landscapers, who wield weed whackers under the relentless sun. Besides, many students and faculty members at Nova are afraid to speak their minds. ¨NSU really fosters a culture of silence,¨ summarizes Alisha VanHoose, editor in chief of Nova´s student newspaper, The Current. ¨No matter what we do, if it´s the least bit controversial, we have so much trouble getting people to talk on the record.¨
The lack of free speech on campus is just one disconcerting issue that has arisen recently. The underlying problem is that Nova´s administration seems intent on playing a protracted game of chicken with its former custodial workers, who tried to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) last year. The workers hoped to bargain for better wages and affordable health care.
On September 29, just as longtime custodial services provider Unicco was preparing to recognize the union, Nova put its contract up for bid. Ultimately, Nova replaced Unicco with several other contractors.
Unicco had overseen maintenance and janitorial workers at the Davie campus for 12 years. Unicco spokesman Doug Bailey says they had nary a complaint in that time. In fact, he says, the school cited Unicco as its Contractor of the Year in 2006.
The switch took effect February 19, leaving more than 100 of Unicco´s 330 custodial employees at Nova out of work, according to the SEIU. Many of the excluded workers had supported the union. Now they´re going on four months without jobs. Meantime, Nova´s top brass is betting it can outlast a clutch of poor people that it put in the street, its own image be damned. The former workers wonder who to blame. And many Nova students just don´t care.
Since its founding in 1964, Nova has suffered little public criticism. For years, the private school was a work in progress that local powerbrokers tried to foster. Donations of land and money trickled in from wealthy individuals and government coffers. Starting with a handful of advanced-degree programs, Nova slowly added more disciplines and accreditations. It absorbed smaller institutes, changed its name twice, and opened an undergraduate school. Its fifth president, Ray Ferrero Jr., a Fort Lauderdale attorney and former Florida Bar president, has been at the helm since 1998. During his tenure, enrollment has mushroomed 53 percent, to 26,000 students. The school has graduated 86,000 professionals in areas such as health services and law.
Initially, in March 2006, the school said its labor problems were a matter between its contractor, Unicco, and the union, SEIU. At the same time, the SEIU was organizing Unicco employees at the University of Miami -- but labor actions at the two schools evolved in starkly different ways.
At the University of Miami, a core group of 18 students supported the custodial workers. They organized marches and sit-ins at the Coral Gables campus. Faculty members stood behind the students and spoke out to the media. The UM janitors went on strike for nine weeks. Within four months, they had higher wages, health care, and union representation.
At Nova, student support was spotty; faculty was mum. Workers managed a one-day strike, and many ultimately paid for it with their livelihoods.
For Rosario López, there´s a silver lining to being out of work. She gets to spend more time with her two young sons, who during the past five years were put to bed most nights by her husband while López tidied Nova´s Davie campus. These days, there are afternoon trips to the local swimming pool, soccer ball kicks at a nearby park, bedtime stories, and lots of prayers. The boys drink up her attention like two parched desert wanderers presented with a jug of water. They just can´t get enough.
López, a petite woman who is originally from Peru, is in the family kitchen, which reflects the matriarch´s careful attention to detail. Fresh-cut pink roses sit atop a crisp tablecloth, accenting the dinette like the magenta lip liner and thick black eye pencil López always wears in public. The faint aroma of a hearty late lunch -- sautéed fish, rice, and lentils -- lingers hours after the meal.
Five-year-old Luciano is antsy for a snack. ¨Mami, will you buy me some potato chips?¨ he pleads, squirming as a child does when he knows his request is a tall one. He tilts his head and hangs on her left arm for emphasis.
¨Not today, Luki,¨ López replies.
Luciano retreats from the kitchen, but not for long. He returns to his mother´s side armed with a large spiral notebook. It´s open to a page bearing a ballpoint sketch that resembles the sun with rays shooting in all directions. Inside the circle, in bold letters, Luciano has carefully written his name and three other words: CLOWN, PIZZA, BALLOON. It´s a wish list for his sixth birthday, which is just around the corner. He´s forgotten the most important item, so he adds another solar bubble and pens the word CAKE.
¨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.
¨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?¨
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.
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.
Alisha VanHoose and Paul Saneaux reported that incident for The Current, Nova´s student paper. The university´s public affairs director, Dave Dawson, told VanHoose at the time that Sacharow was ¨not a current student.¨ The registrar´s office said otherwise.
Sacharow is reluctant to comment about it now, citing the requirements he still needs for an advanced degree from Nova. But he says he´s alarmed by the lack of social responsibility on campus. ¨While we need to be concerned about the school, I´m more concerned about the student body. How we treat the least among us says the most about who we are.¨
In early May, when New Times first requested interviews to discuss the union battle and its effect on the school´s image, Nova Public Affairs Director Dave Dawson dismissed the petition.
¨I´m not aware that it´s a contemporary issue. I understand that labor unions want to organize, which is how they get dues and how they get paid -- I´m sure it´s an issue with them,¨ Dawson said before erupting into laughter.
At that point, former employees like Rosario López, María Vega, and Wanda Rodríguez were going on three months collecting unemployment.
Dawson also shrugged off dozens of complaints that have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board. ¨I read one of the filings on behalf of one of the workers, who is now working for the SEIU, so ha ha, ha ha it´s a little bit incestuous. I don´t know what to make of that.¨
The employee Dawson was referring to is Steve McGonigle, formerly a full-time painter at the school.
Dawson continued: ¨It´s just not something that I´m tracking on a daily basis or that I´m even aware is still out there. If the union wants to organize workers, they certainly have the right to do that.¨
Dawson concluded that arranging for university President Ferrero or anyone else affiliated with Nova to comment further on the displacement of low-income workers would be unwise. ¨Then what we´re doing is keeping something alive that doesn´t deserve to be -- that´s dying its own natural death when there isn´t any new news for the New Times or anybody else.¨
Later that week, just as Nova students were getting ready to graduate, the union staged a rally outside Nova´s Health Professions Division. A huge inflatable rat, its claws raised and eyes blood red, towered over the demonstrators at the intersection of SW 36th Street and University Drive.
The three-dozen protesters were a mix of former employees and union activists. Most wore dark-purple SEIU T-shirts. Many of their chants were variations of popular sports songs such as the ¨Olé, Olé, Olé , Olé¨ sung at soccer games in Latin America. The message piped through megaphones switched among Creole, English, and Spanish. Occasionally, the group broke into dance. Many of the displaced workers speak limited English, so mixing in their languages is critical if the union wants to make them feel involved and keep up morale.
Two white third-year dental students in baby-blue scrubs stopped to watch the spectacle. Once they figured out what all the noise was about, one of the young men said, ¨Sounds right up Nova´s alley to me -- this school is screwing everyone.¨ Then he launched into a tirade about how his annual tuition has skyrocketed $10,000 in three years, to $40,000, even as the program gets more crowded. Aspiring dentists were told at the outset of their studies that 100 students would compete for 85 clinical study chairs, he said. Instead, his class is up to 125. Without time in the chair, the dental students can´t get the practice they need to graduate. But the young men would not give even their first names or hometowns because they fear retribution. ¨They would kick us out instantly, and it wouldn´t be based on this -- it would be based on something totally obscure,¨ one explained.
Nearby, three young black women dressed in turquoise scrubs asked what all the ruckus was about. Told that the workers tried to unionize so they could win concessions like health insurance only to lose their jobs, the cluster of nursing students expressed concern. Everyone should have health coverage, they agreed. The women could end up SEIU members themselves, as the union represents 13,000 nurses and other health-care workers in Florida.
Hiram Ruiz, political director for SEIU Local 11, is the heart and soul of the Nova campaign. A white beard and extra pounds around his midsection combine with a jolly bearing to give Ruiz a Santa Claus-like persona. But he was distraught to hear that students watching the rally had no clue what it was about. ¨We´ve been at it for a year!¨ he exclaimed, throwing his arms up.
The giant-rat rally was just one dart the union hurled at Nova that week. After detecting that the university was blocking e-mails on its server from the union to Nova students and professors, the SEIU took out full-page advertisements in local newspapers comparing the school to communist regimes in China and Cuba. The union got word out to reporters that The Current was barred from printing full-page, $400 advertisements from the SEIU; staffers at the school paper confirmed that after running one ad, they were prohibited from accepting more from the union. The SEIU also discovered that the dean of Nova´s law school sits on the board of directors of Access Group, a private lender that does business with Nova. Dean Joseph Harbaugh says he´s filling the role pro bono. Separately, the school came under fire for routing calls to Nova´s financial-aid office to a center that, unbeknown to students, was run by lender Sallie Mae.
The grand finale came Saturday, May 12. As undergraduates and their families prepared for a cap-and-gown commencement ceremony, union activists were in position at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise. They handed out 300 neon-green packets stuffed with alarming information about the school before being escorted off the premises. The bullet points shouted that US News & World Report ranks Nova undergraduates as having the tenth-highest level of student debt nationwide. And that, according to Nova stats, only 47 percent of the school´s full-time freshmen in 2000 were able to get their bachelor´s degrees within six years.
Yet all seems well on the financial front for Nova. According to its most recent tax return, the university boasted hearty revenue of $469 million for the 2005-06 school year. After $424 million in expenses, that left it with nearly $45 million. Also during that period, Nova banked almost $8 million in fees from loans the school told the IRS it extended for the convenience of students. According to the Department of Education, Nova is the top school lender in the country, having given out $392 million in loans in 2005.
All the commotion and negative publicity has finally stirred up some critics from within the university. Some of them are natural watchdogs, like professors in the law school. Others are simply rebels at heart, like Professor Barry Barker, chair of the environmental sciences program. Barker was at the forefront of the Nova faculty´s failed unionization attempt in 1998, at the onset of Ferrero´s presidency. The concerns at that time were varied, with some staffers upset about workloads, salaries, and management practices. Others feared that academics would take a back seat under Ferrero, who had no experience in education. The administration, Barker recalls, tried its darnedest to keep the faculty from garnering enough votes for a union. The effort was effectively squashed, in part because the university management challenged the rights of some employees to participate in the election.
¨I wish I knew how many dollars were spent ten years ago preventing unionization,¨ Barker says. ¨Whether it´s informal or a cultural thing, somewhere there is a policy that says... Thou Shall Not Unionize.´¨
Above all else, Nova seems to value the entrepreneurial spirit. And some folks in its higher echelons might be under the impression that unions and corporations clash like oil and water. But Barker resents the belief that universities should be run like businesses. Nova´s aim, he says, ¨is to operate as a for-profit corporation. When you become a business, then you make decisions as a business, not necessarily in the interest of your customers.¨
Although some areas could improve, the faculty is largely satisfied these days. After the professors´ union drive, the university made a number of concessions. Still, most -- including Barker -- have renewable contracts that make their jobs vulnerable. ¨There is, rightly or wrongly, the perception that if you don´t have tenure, you speak at your peril,¨ says Michael Masinter, a law professor who has taught at Nova since 1978.
Masinter and others in the law school have tenure. Yet they have been slow to speak publicly about the university´s battle with the SEIU, choosing instead to negotiate from within, they say. ¨Not everybody at the university is in lockstep on this,¨ Masinter says. ¨Some of us think that we should do better by the people who have worked for the university for years, and I´m certainly one of those people.
¨Individuals who worked long and hard for the benefit of everybody at the university -- the students and the faculty -- sought to better themselves by creating a union, and they lost their jobs. And that´s a terrible thing. These are good people, and they didn´t do anything wrong. They exercised a right that belongs to them under our legal system, and they shouldn´t suffer for it.¨
Meanwhile, Nova´s reputation is getting tarnished. ¨Look at the parade of politicians and individuals who have reached out to try to talk some sense into Nova,¨ says Bruce Nissen, a director at the Center for Labor Research and Studies at Florida International University in Miami.
FIU was also confronted by the SEIU in 2006, but the state university acted swiftly to recognize the workers´ right to unionize. If it hadn´t, Nissen says the FIU faculty would have revolted.
Paul Saneaux, managing editor of Nova´s student newspaper, has decided FIU is the place for him. He has one more year to go before clinching a bachelor´s degree in biology, with a minor in English, and he´ll be damned if that diploma says Nova. So he´s transferring. ¨Maybe it´s because I´ve worked at the newspaper and know more about the school than the average student -- but I wouldn´t want to see NSU on my degree right now.¨ And tuition at FIU for in-state students is about a fifth of what Nova charges.
On May 17, President Ferrero sent another letter about the union to faculty and students. This time, his words were angry. ¨Nova Southeastern University has been under direct attack by a national union that is aggressively seeking to increase its membership,¨ he began. ¨This attack has gone beyond a routine effort to lawfully organize workers. It is intended to damage our academic reputation, discredit our faculty, and disrupt our academic activities. The tactics are aimed at devaluing an NSU degree in the marketplace and to undermine the important mission our university has in the community.¨
Yet Ferrero´s interpretation of events seems to diverge from that of many folks, including the service workers´ former employer, Unicco. Nova says its decision to rebid Unicco´s contract came five months before the contractor recognized the union. But Unicco President George Keches says that after he alerted Ferrero that he planned to recognize the union, he received a letter from Ferrero by fax that same day stating that the school would solicit prices from other contractors. ¨Ferrero´s recollection just isn´t accurate,¨ says Doug Bailey, spokesman for Unicco. Ferrero did not respond to numerous direct requests from New Times for comment.
Unicco wasn´t exactly surprised at the rebidding move. The university had made it pretty clear that it prefers to remain union-free, Bailey says. But Unicco´s recognition of the SEIU at the University of Miami, he contends, created a domino effect for unionization among its workers elsewhere. All told, Bailey estimates that Unicco now has more than 100 agreements with the union. Denying a union effort just 25 miles north of the UM campus would be unthinkable, Bailey explains. ¨We felt obligated, and we felt like it was necessary to recognize the union at Nova too.¨
When Nova hired several contractors to replace Unicco, critics called it a divide-and-conquer tactic. Labor experts call it union-busting. Cleaning ladies like Rosario López and Wanda Rodríguez now realize it´s called unemployment.
Judging by a humanitarian award bestowed on Ray Ferrero Jr. by the National Conference for Community and Justice´s local chapter in March, South Florida might just be A-OK with that. Then again, Ferrero sits on the conference´s board.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.