Frank Lovece in Legal/Financial
Co-op City's contract with its workers expired at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, eight hours before a scheduled strike was to commence. At that time, RiverBay locked out its union workers in an impasse over a wage increase and health benefits. "The 32BJ workers represent more than half of the workforce here," Co-op City general manager Vernon Cooper of RiverBay told Crain's New York Business last week, confirming the lockout. "We couldn't afford to wait until the last minute to put a strike contingency plan in place."
In other recent developments, politicians and Local 32BJ officials attended a rally in support of the workers Thursday afternoon, and on Friday morning, the New York City Sanitation Department picked up the roughly 100 tons of garbage that had accumulated, following a health-hazard declaration by the city's Department of Health.
The strike at the storied Co-Op City — a middle-income cooperative in the northern Bronx, whose 15,372 residential units in 25 high-rise buildings and seven clusters of townhouses make it the largest single residential development in the country, according to 2005 documentary A Walk Through the Bronx — came after weeks of negotiations. The union said in a press release that on Friday, May 28, it had offered to extend the contract negotiations for one week beyond the deadline, but that RiverBay rejected the offer.
"Their last offer was about one week ago," a union spokesperson told Habitat Friday afternoon.
Raise vs. Health-Care Standard
Workers told the Associated Press that RiverBay had proposed a choice of either keeping the existing North Suburban health plan and receiving no raise, or accepting a 2.33 percent raise, frozen for four years, and switching to the Bronx Realty Advisory Board health plan, which Cooper said would cost the co-op $1.3 million less per year. The union said the cheaper plan is inferior and contains caps.
"We wholeheartedly believe that the workers are entitled to fair wages," Cooper told The Wall Street Journal. "We just can't afford to give wage increases on top of paying for this health plan." Despite this statement to the Journal, says the union spokesperson, "All we've heard from them is a denial that their last offer was a wage freeze."
The workers are under a different contract that that of 32BJ members in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, the spokesperson explained. The Bronx has a separate contract, and Co-op City, by virtue of its size, has yet a third. The 2.33 raise amount is equal to that negotiated with great fanfare in the other four boroughs in April, in which workers kept their health plan but agreed to cost-saving concessions, averting a strike.
The largely working-class Co-op city residents themselves, who ultimately pay for the staff via shareholders' monthly maintenance fees, appear to support the workers in interviews given to various press outlets. Retired transit worker Efrain Burgos told the AP, "They're not asking for anything unreasonable." Joy Barber lamented to the New York Daily News, "It's always something at Co-op City. … Now they won't give these people the health care they need." A member of management, director of buildings and grounds Louis Salazar, told the striking workers, "You guys are the life of this development, you maintain it the way it is. ... Nobody wins if we let you go," the AP reported.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said in a statement that RiverBay "must back away from [its] hard line … and return to the negotiating table. Freezing wages, refusing to extend the negotiating deadline and locking out employees is not the way we do business in The Bronx." Public Advocate Bill de Blasio marched with workers Thursday at the complex, which has been home to, among others, U.S. Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, novelist-screenwriter Richard Price, actress-rapper Queen Latifah and many political and sports figures.
City Council members G. Oliver Koppell, Joel Rivera, Ydanis Rodriguez, Larry Seabrook and Jimmy Van Bramer have also expressed support for the striking workers.
RiverBay in a statement Thursday called this "political theater."
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