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.

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Amy Guthrie
Contact: Amy Guthrie