Crippled by Low Wages, Miami Janitors File Labor Charges Against Cleaning Contractor

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Miriam Alba is tired of being tired. An immigrant from Nicaragua, she wears her exhaustion like a uniform, juggling multiple jobs to keep a roof over her head and help put her granddaughter through college. For years, Alba’s working days have been filled with cooking and cleaning homes, leaving little time for sleep. The few snatches of shut-eye she did get, about three or four hours at most, came after a night shift of janitorial work at CIC Miami, a large co-working space in eastern Allapattah, right next to the interstate.

Alba had always handled her janitorial work at CIC with pride, if unhappily at times: The pay, $8.46 an hour, was poor, and part-time workers like her didn’t receive any benefits. But it wasn’t until she began organizing for higher wages that she finally decided to leave. CIC outsources its cleaning needs to Coastal Building Management (CBM) and its property management to the real-estate service company Cushman & Wakefield. Last month, Alba was at the center of pending unfair labor practice charges filed against both companies. Since going public with her support for a union, she says she’s been surveilled and threatened. CBM denies those charges. Cushman & Wakefield did not return messages from New Times seeking comment.

While Miami’s booming real-estate market and nascent startup scene continue to draw attention for their steady growth, it’s South Florida’s low-wage service sector that’s actually created the most new jobs in recent years. That includes janitorial workers such as Alba, who was deflated to learn just how bad janitors in Miami had it. When factoring in the cost of living, the Miami metro area ranks third-worst in the nation for median janitorial wages and dead last in Florida, according to an analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Studies by the workers’ union Service Employees International Union (SEIU). On average, janitors working in areas as expensive as Miami make more than $3.50 more per hour than Miami janitors.

Put differently, while the industries that help build, sell, rent, and manage Miami properties continue to blossom, work standards for the people who clean them remain virtually stagnant: SEIU estimates that real annual earnings in the janitorial industry have grown by just 1.6 percent in the past two decades. The poor growth is, in part, a product of a race to the bottom on wages among cleaning contractors, to whom office buildings have happily outsourced their cleaning work, according to Ana Tinsly, a spokeswoman for the Florida division of 32BJ SEIU.

It was these two disparate realities that led Alba and other janitorial workers to consider unionizing. Alba quickly became the leader of the push in her building. In September, she was one of the key speakers at an SEIU-organized event outside the CIC building. The event included other janitorial workers and a number of local officials, including Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, and Miramar state Rep. Cindy Polo.

During Alba’s speech, a Cushman & Wakefield employee hung around the crowd behind her and used his phone to film (not pictured in the footage tweeted above). Afterward, Alba and two co-workers returned to work, at which time a CBM supervisor insisted photos of all three of them must be taken. Alba says that the timing of the photos was no coincidence and that it was just the latest in a long line of anti-union nudges by CBM leadership, including telling her not to wear her work uniform at a pro-union event and even threatening retaliation.

“CBM views the union’s allegations as part of a larger attempt to improperly disrupt CBM’s business and its positive relationships with its employees and clients, and will flush that out in this process,” reads a statement from CBM president Matthew Sullivan, who is named in one of the pending unfair labor practice charges.

In a phone call with New Times, Sullivan denied accusations of union-busting and said that if someone snapped photos of Alba after the union event, it wasn’t his staff. The Cushman & Wakefield property manager named in the unfair labor practice charge did not respond to New Times‘ request for comment.

Alba, for her part, is fed up. She carries her and her colleagues’ frustrations with her like a stack of business cards, which she dutifully hands out to anyone who will listen. Despite quitting her job at CBM a few weeks ago, she says she won’t stop her efforts to unionize janitors in the Miami area. South Florida’s janitors are overwhelmingly immigrants and people of color. SEIU’s analysis of federal data found that nearly 80 percent of janitorial workers in the area are foreign-born. Only 10 percent of janitors in the area are white non-Hispanic.

“The people doing these jobs are immigrants. They know that. They exploit us. They take advantage of our desperateness,” Alba says. “This fight is for all cleaning workers, not just me.”

Tinsley says the union is concentrating its efforts on janitorial workers under its “Justice for Janitors” campaign. The last time a major unionization push by janitors happened in the Miami area was more than a decade ago, when 400 workers at the University of Miami went on a hunger strike to protest low pay.

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