MIAMI � More than 60 percent of the contract janitors and groundskeepers at the University of Miami voted to join the Service Employees International Union, giving the lowest-paid workers at one of Florida's richest private universities a place at the bargaining table.
"We are invisible no more," said Maritza Paz, one of the janitors employed by the UNICCO Service Co.
The vote followed a nine-week strike and a "campaign for justice" organized by students, faculty, religious and labor leaders. It was verified and made public by the American Arbitration Association on Thursday, the same day janitors at Nova Southeastern University announced that about 70 percent of NSU's janitors have signed cards indicating they want to decide how to form a union.
As was the case at UM, janitors at NSU earn as little as $7 an hour and have no health insurance.
Of the 385 maintenance workers eligible to participate in the UM vote, 290 signed cards in favor of the SEIU, but the association quit counting once support reached 60 percent, according to SEIU spokeswoman Renee Asher.
UNICCO spokesman Doug Bailey said the facility services company was satisfied with the verification process.
"We can now move to the next phase of the collective bargaining agreements," he said.
UM spokeswoman Margot Winick said the university welcomed "the completion of this chapter."
Wages for UM's cleaning crew have been a simmering issue on campus since 2001, when a national survey of janitorial wages at 195 universities ranked UM second from the bottom. But the issue boiled over this year, after UM President Donna Shalala's successful campaign to raise a $1 billion for UM scholarships and other improvements.
Many students, faculty members, religious and other leaders were embarrassed that such a rich institution paid poverty wages to its bottom-rung workers, and joined the janitors in their campaign to pressure for change.
University officials eventually authorized UNICCO to provide health care benefits to UM's maintenance workers and increase their starting hourly pay from $6.40 to $8.55, but that was not enough to avert the strike. Janitors said the health package was unaffordable and they still needed a voice at the table.
On Thursday, they got one.
"It is an incredible feeling to finally have a voice and the strength to improve our lives," Paz said.
Maya Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org