Is a strike of building staff in the offing? That was one of the questions being asked by cooperative and condominium owners as the opening round of contract talks for 28,000 co-op, condo, and rental apartment workers began on Tuesday, March 11, at the Manhattan headquarters of Local 32BJ, the building service workers' union. The current contract, negotiated by the union and the Realty Advisory Board (RAB), expires at midnight on April 20.
The contract covers doormen, concierges, superintendents/resident managers, handymen, and porters. The union estimates that more than a million New York City apartment dwellers could be affected if there is a strike.
"The residential real estate industry is holding up well despite New York City's shaky economy," says Local 32BJ President Mike Fishman. "Property value increases far surpass inflation." But those who take care of apartment buildings and residents are making wages that are barely keeping pace with inflation. Because of inflation and rising costs, "we're bringing home less for our families."
Fishman reports that a study, conducted by the New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals, notes that a single parent with two children in Manhattan would require a minimum income of $48,396 annually to maintain economic self-sufficiency. Fishman says that most apartment workers' wages fall short of that standard. A starting porter earns $27,482. By comparison, the starting annual salary for a New York City police officer is $34,514 and starting salary for a teacher is $39,000.
High on the list of union concerns is security training. The union president cites a recent survey completed by 18,000 apartment workers indicating that, in the past year, nearly 40 percent of the workers had been asked to take on greater security and safety responsibilities: attending anti-terrorism classes, more careful monitoring of contractors and visitors, and instituting a higher level of staff surveillance of building entrances and grounds. Building porters and doormen were reporting higher levels of concerns from tenants, particularly in the wake of the anthrax scare.
Fishman notes that the union is asking for three key things: a wage increase in each year of the three-year contract; an expanded health care provider network; and a building safety awareness and training program coordinated with the police and fire department to help workers deal with increased security challenges in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
According to RAB President Jim Berg, three years ago, when the union and RAB negotiated a contract, times were very different for the real estate industry. Real estate owners "are facing larger tax increases, skyrocketing insurance costs, rising fuel costs. All these things will have an effect on our ability to provide [wage] increases to employees," Berg says.
In 2000, the union won several important concessions, including higher pension benefits (from $900 to $1,250 a month, set to go into effect in 2004), $10 monthly contributions to 401K accounts, and an across-the-board hourly wage increase of 10 percent. At the same time, the minimum age a member could retire with full benefits was dropped from 65 to 62.
In addition to asking for still unspecified wage increases, union representatives are also asking to scrap the two-tier salary system. At present, new employees receive 80 percent of their full salary for the first 30 months they are on the job.
Berg reports that in most buildings the average full-time union employee is making $660 a week, with union benefits rounding that figure up to $900 a week. New York City's residential building owners are paying an average of $53,000 a year each for their doormen and porters. "This is probably the most expensive operating cost" of building budgets, observes Berg. He adds that the union's demands for an expanded health care provider network and security training for building personnel could be met with "little or no cost." The wage increases are still being negotiated.
While the current contract is set to expire at midnight on Sunday, April 20, neither side seems to think a strike is likely. Although the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums has prepared a booklet with suggestions for strike preparations - such as hiring security guards now to help maintain surveillance and signing up residents for door duty - Berg points out that the last round of contract negotiations ended early and amicably.
The bargaining relationship with 32BJ is good, says Berg, who adds: "We have every reason to expect to find a settlement." The best way to put pressure on the union to decrease its demands is for buildings to be prepared to operate in case of a strike. "If you prepare," Berg notes, "that will put us in good stead [at the