Janitors vote Saturday

Preparing for a vote by Northwestern’s contracted janitors Saturday that could authorize a strike, officials at the contracting companies and an NU administrator said Thursday that back-up plans for janitorial service were ready.

Senior Vice President for Business and Finance Eugene Sunshine said NU has had “regular communication” with the contracting companies since the union first indicated it was considering a strike.

“It would be irresponsible of us not to do some contingency,” Sunshine said. “We will work on that, and we will manage it some way or another so there will be minimal, if any, disruption.”

The Service Employees International Union, Local 1, is scheduled to hold the strike vote at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Evanston Holiday Inn. After talking with the contracted janitors, union organizers said they think a strike likely will be approved and NU should be prepared.

“These contract employees clean an awful lot of Northwestern square feet,” organizer Jeff Danielski said. “If I was in their place, I might be worried.”

If the contracted janitors do decide to strike, Danielski said the union likely will not picket each of the 70 campus buildings the janitors clean but would focus its resources on larger protest events.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” he said. “We do very, very public demonstrations. Nobody’s going to be able to ignore the demonstrators.”

Attempting to gain wages and benefits for janitors similar to those at other Chicago-area universities, Local 1 officials are negotiating with the three companies that provide NU with janitorial services: Aramark, Kimco Staffing Services and Millard/Admiral Maintenance.

Universities such as Loyola and DePaul pay their contracted janitors about $10 to $13 an hour. NU pays about $7 an hour, union organizers said.

They also said the other universities give the contracted janitors full family health insurance, while Kimco and Millard only offer single health insurance in exchange for lower wages and Aramark offers none at all.

The union and the contracting companies have disagreed in the past about whether the companies’ NU janitors are covered by an agreement reached in April for janitors in “suburban office buildings.” But Sunshine said the contractors were paying wages and benefits that paralleled the suburban agreement.

“My understanding is that the contractors are doing what is equivalent to the suburban deal,” Sunshine said. “In practice they have been adhering to that agreement. In the end, it’s the same thing.”

Although union organizers have been attacking the contracted janitors’ current wages as “poverty wages,” Sunshine said: “Labeling things in that manner isn’t particularly helpful.

“I wouldn’t label it a matter of ethics or morality. It’s business,” Sunshine said.

“These are reputable companies that have many clients in this area and, with some, around the country,” he said.

Sunshine said he was surprised by the union’s statements about the expired contracts because the contracts had only been made a few years ago. “All of a sudden that’s unethical and so forth,” he said.

Although he supported the companies, he noted that “they have an obligation to provide us with service” if a strike occurred.

“We would hope that this matter would be resolved between the contractors and the union,” he said.

Aramark, however, is the only contracting company that union organizers said they have exchanged proposals with, and Aramark and Local 1 have not met since Oct. 26. But Darrell Steinberg, director of labor relations for Aramark’s Chicago office, said Thursday he wasn’t concerned with the pause in negotiations.

“The union said they needed to talk to some people,” he said.

The proposal Steinberg made to Aramark on the 26th included a 4 percent wage increase per year and, beginning in April 2002, full family health insurance.

Danielski said the 4 percent increase is “just not going to do it. That’s like 30 cents per year.”

Steinberg said the proposed raise could increase in future negotiations.

“I’ve never known us to go backward. Negotiations always go forward,” he said.

From Aramark’s corporate headquarters in Philadelphia, spokesman Doug Warner said negotiations were making “great strides.”

“We’re still working very hard on negotiations and we feel confident that a fair solution will be reached,” he said. “It’s part of our business to be prepared for anything.”

Kimco President David Tarson said his company was ready with a contingency plan as well.

“We’re going to do our best. We want to support the university,” he said.

Danielski said on Tuesday that Kimco had violated the National Labor Relations Act because the company had “refused to talk with us for five months,” but Tarson denied that charge and said the lack of communication was the union’s fault.

“They haven’t given me what their demands are,” he said.

Tarson said his company could use replacement workers in the event of a strike, but Danielski said he doubted the merits of that move.

He said buildings not cleaned by a regular maintenance staff get unpleasant, “certainly the athletic facilities.”

When the suburban office workers went on strike for 10 days in April, he said replacement workers did shoddy work.

“The places were really, really a mess” when the striking janitors returned to work, he said. “The people there (in the office buildings) were practically kissing their feet.”

He also said hiring replacement workers would be difficult for the companies because of the low wages the jobs pay and the reluctance of suburban office workers to fill the jobs.

“Now that the suburban workers have been in a strike, they’ll know the importance of not scabbing,” he said.