April 2, 2013

‘A sin to underpay’: Church leaders back UM food workers on union

Clergy members urged the University of Miami to support living wages for the school’s food-service employees.

A dozen ministers and church leaders gathered at the University of Miami on Tuesday to demand fair wages for the university’s food service workers.

The employees work for Chartwells, the company in charge of the dining halls and most food service at UM. Some employees earn less than $10,000 a year and supplement their income with government aid, said Muhammed Malik, one of the protest organizers.

“It is a terrible thing to have people working on this campus below the poverty line,” said the Rev. Gaston Smith of Friendship Ministry Baptist Church at a news conference. “It is a sin before God to underpay these people.”

The clergy members delivered a letter to UM President Donna Shalala’s office urging her to intervene on behalf of the Chartwells employees.

The letter signed by 55 local church leaders asked Shalala to support the worker’s efforts to unionize.

“We want to encourage you to lead by example and promote working standards that benefit our communities, especially workers who are forced to rely on public services like Medicaid and Food Stamps because they survive on meager wages,” the letter stated

UM said it will not take a side on the union issue.

“The university is not ignoring the issue. We’re asking the parties involved to abide by the rules. It is their decision to make whether they want to unionize or not. The university values all of its workers including these contract workers,” said UM spokeswoman Margot Winick.

Malik said Shalala was aware for weeks that the group wanted to meet with her, but she did not reply to their requests.

“There is a feeling right now of very deep disappointment and concern that not even prominent clergy members can meet with Shalala to talk about this issue,” Malik said.

The food service workers are pushing to form their own union similar to what the UM janitors accomplished in 2006. After a strike and countless protests, UM raised the janitors’ wages by at least 25 percent and offered healthcare coverage.

The pastors on Tuesday said they will continue to raise awareness about the food service workers fight to form a union. A Facebook fan page has been set up under WeCaneDoBetter to tell the food service workers’ stories.

On Thursday, a rally will be held at 4 p.m. on U.S. 1 and Stanford Drive, across the street from the university’s main entrance.

“This is a tragic situation," said former Miami Commissioner the Rev. Richard Dunn of Faith Community Baptist Church. “We will not rest till justice rolls down in a mighty river and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

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