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Building Service Workers Union Gives Negotiators Power to Call a Strike

Bill Morris in Building Operations on April 14, 2022

Upper East Side, Manhattan

Building service employees, contract talks, strike vote, Local 32BJ, co-op and condo boards.

Local 32BJ president Kyle Bragg, center, at Wednesday's pro-union rally (image courtesy of 32BJ).

April 14, 2022

With the clock ticking toward an April 20 strike deadline, 10,000 members and supporters of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union — including Gov. Kathy Hochul and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer — gathered on Park Avenue on Wednesday in a show of solidarity. At the rally, union members gave their bargaining committee the power to call a strike if a new four-year contract is not hammered out by next Wednesday.

Gov. Hochul announced that she’ll support the city’s 32,000 building service employees if they walk off the job. Manny Pastreich, secretary-treasurer of Local 32BJ, added that the two sides remain “very far apart.”

Two major sticking points appear to be wages at a time of high inflation and the demand that union members pay a portion of their family healthcare costs, which are now borne entirely by building owners, including co-op and condo boards

Kyle Bragg, president of 32BJ, addressed the latter issue at the rally: “Healthcare is a cornerstone of 32BJ. It’s a strike issue. The building owners want us to take money out of our paycheck to pay for healthcare every month, whether we use it or not. We will not stand for premium sharing and we will not stand for anything that disrespects the time and work our members have given over the past two years. We’ve had to fight for every single thing we have in our union contract: paid days off, health care, workplace protection, a pension. This is no exception.”

Howard Rothschild, president of the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations (RAB), which is negotiating on behalf of building owners, pointed out that the strike-authorization vote does mean that a strike is inevitable. “It simply allows 32BJ the option to strike, should we be unable to reach an agreement,” Rothschild said. “The RAB has proposed fair and reasonable wage increases, as well as the sharing of healthcare costs through employee contributions to the premiums, of which employees currently pay zero. Our relationship with the union has resulted in more than 30 years of uninterrupted labor peace, and we continue to work toward that same goal this year.”

The last strike was in 1991. Today, more than 3,000 New York City buildings are staffed by 32BJ doormen, porters, handymen and other workers.

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While the rhetoric gets hotter and louder, co-op and condo boards and their property managers are quietly making preparations for a possible strike.

“We’ve had an uptick in calls from management companies that handle large buildings,” says James Park, president of Spark Super, a third-party staffing company. “They’re trying to get quotes on the price of replacement workers. The consensus is to have a backup plan in case things go south, and boards are looking at alternatives. During a strike, for instance, they might forgo an overnight porter, or they might get residents to pitch in to take out the garbage and man the front door. Security is probably the hottest topic.”

Peter von Simson, the chief executive at New Bedford Management, says the company’s strike preparations are complete. “It’s pretty standard,” he says. “First and foremost is security, which includes creating some sort of ID card or proof of identity for residents. It’s going to be up to volunteers to pick up the slack on things like garbage removal, cleaning, checking in on seniors. One of the big keys is to set expectations and make people aware that this is not going to be business as usual.” 

The Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums has produced a 16-page manual to help boards prepare for a possible strike.

For the first time in three decades, that looks like a distinct possibility. Emboldened by its sacrifices during the pandemic and by recent union victories at Amazon, Starbucks, the Brooklyn Museum and elsewhere, Local 32BJ has taken an aggressive stance during this year’s negotiations. Pastreich, the local’s secretary-treasurer, tells Crain’s: “I'm a strong believer that you get what you have the power to take.”

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