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Union No More

There were no scabs crossing picket lines. There weren’t even picket lines. Yet the 2,904-unit Glen Oaks Village cooperative in Queens reduced its number of union maintenance workers by seven percent in a negotiated trade-off that the co-op, the workers, and the union consider a win-win-win scenario.

It is also a rare scenario, since unions, with good reason, reflexively fight to maintain or increase employment levels; many a Broadway musical would have a bare-minimum orchestra or even tape-recorded music without a union. Yet in Glen Oaks’ case, Local 32B/J of the Service Employees International Union, AFL-CIO, agreed to let four contracted positions go unfilled. The reason? In order to let four members step up to management positions in a promote-from-within arrangement that kept the same men in place, with better pay and at least equal benefits. In doing so, Glen Oaks and the union demonstrated how creativity, flexibility, and, most importantly, genuine trust and good will could do the near-impossible: let an employer gain concessions even in the middle of a contract period.

“They didn’t agree overnight,” Board President Bob Friedrich says of the union negotiators. “It took discussions and working it out, and showing them we were serious.” The process, begun in 1999 and implemented over the next few years, reduced the number of Glen Oaks porters, groundskeepers, handymen, and others from 57 to 53 – seven percent decrease.

Glen Oaks Village is a sprawling, working-class co-op of 134 buildings across 110 acres in two non-contiguous sections – the size of a town. “This is a $23 million corporation with 10,000 residents,” notes Friedrich. Shareholders, some of them absentee landlords renting out their apartments, own about 75 percent of the units. The remainder is rent-stabilized, reflecting Glen Oaks’ origin in 1947 primarily as affordable housing for World War II veterans. It was converted to a co-op in 1981 and became self-managed in the mid-1990s.

There is a full-time staff of 85, including administrative employees. The structure of Local 32B/J, at Glen Oaks and elsewhere, is three-tiered, with pay-and-expertise levels called “porter,” “handyman,” and “supervisor.” Having a union supervisor managing union workers “was a conflict of interest,” says Mildred Marshburn, a three-decade employee who became Glen Oaks’ property manager in 1994 and general manager in 1997. “It made it very difficult for a supervisor to discipline his staff, if he needed to. Of course, the supervisors would sometimes write someone up, but we went for years without terminating anyone no matter how poorly they did a job.”

“They were considered supervisors in accordance with union definitions,” observes Friedrich, “but they weren’t supervisors in the normal sense – they weren’t in charge of people. They had worked their way up the ranks to the supervisor pay scale.”

Adding to the complicated arrangement, says Marshburn, was “a disconnect between management and the maintenance department, [which] gave management information only on an ‘as needed’ basis; you had to pry it out of them. We needed to make some changes. We needed the managers really to become managers, and not be part of the same union.”

When Glen Oaks decided to self-manage in the 1990s, recalls Friedrich, “we had to fill a number of positions,” previously helmed by the management company’s employees. Among those positions, Friedrich says, “we needed someone to be in charge of the maintenance department. We decided on one of the supervisors, Drew Englot, who knew the property, had been here a long time, was honest and above reproach, and capable. We thought about the fact [that] he was in the union, but we felt, ‘Let’s hold that in abeyance while we get our people in place.’ That’s how this unusual situation came about.”

The “unusual situation” was having a maintenance department head who, says Marshburn, “was still a union employee [and] who had a salary base as a union supervisor. In addition, the co-op paid him about $20,000 more to manage the maintenance department, which is really a conflict. But that’s how we ran things.”

Concurrently, the board departmentalized the formerly amorphous maintenance staff, creating five departments. There would be one supervisor managing the grounds keeping department, one managing the separate carpentry and electrical departments, and another managing the separate plumbing and boiler departments, with Englot in charge overall. After a year or two, as the board became comfortable with self-management, says Friedrich, they chose three union employees to fill those positions. “We faced two issues,” he says. “Will the men want that? And how will we get the union to decertify those three positions?”

Friedrich, an accountant by trade, decided the best way to present a case was to gather computerized information of what and how many jobs were done, year in year out. Armed with that data, culled from work orders, “We said that, realistically, we don’t need 57 maintenance people working in Glen Oaks Village, and we had the facts to support that. So we told the union, ‘We’d like to propose that we remove these four positions, and we agree that for the next five years we will not come back and seek reductions in the work force.’ The facts were irrefutable. They were all on computer.”

The union agreed. “Four supervisors who were suit-and-tie-type supervisors were taken out of the collective bargaining agreement,” says Matt Nerzig, a spokesperson for Local 32B/J. “The co-op agreed not to seek further reductions through the contract.” The contract, he says, extended through 2004, and “even though the contract expired, Glen Oaks hasn’t asked for any additional reductions.”

“The union knows we have a good relationship with our workers and treat them well,” says Friedrich. “We weren’t trying to get the union out of there. We wouldn’t.” The union, he says, “saw that this was a co-op that wanted the best for its people – we were paying for their schooling, buying tools and equipment, having seminars – and that this was [some long-time employees’] one-time opportunity to work their way up to management.”

“I think it worked out great,” says Englot, the first to leave and become management. After a time, when other union supervisors saw the position working out, three of them gradually made the shift as well.

“We all feel we’re on a much more even playing field,” observes Englot. “When you have nine board members and things come up, a couple of them might have felt at times of disagreement that if you argued against something that seemed pro-union, that we were only doing it because it was pro-union. Once we made that step to become non-union managers, we could disagree on something and it wouldn’t be seen as being for that reason.”

Key to this was talking to the workers and learning what their priorities were. “I learned what was important to them was the benefits package,” says Marshburn. “The key thing was a benefits package equal to the union’s, which gave them full coverage for their families’ medical, dental, and eye [needs].”

Adds Englot: “With the union, you get to the position of a supervisor and you can’t go any further. No matter how good a job you do, they pay you the union scale. I was pretty confident in my job skills,” he says, and he and the other managerial supervisors can earn bonuses and other incentive pay.

Glen Oaks’ strategy wouldn’t work everywhere – a co-op or condo needs a track record of treating its employees well, plus credibility and a feeling of trust that it will keep its word even without a contract. It is, however, an example of what can be done working hand-in-hand between what too often are considered adversaries: union and management. And it comes down to something even more basic: treat people right, and they’ll treat you right.

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