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SEIU Local 32BJ squares off against real estate bosses
Building strike in NYC?

By Peter Lamphere | April 21, 2006 | Page 11

NEW YORK--Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, which represents 28,000 doormen, elevator operators and other building workers in more than 3,500 buildings, plans to strike April 21 if real-estate owners don't agree to an acceptable contract by then.

Building owners have demanded that workers pay 15 percent of their health care premiums--as much as $1,400 for each worker. Combined with their demand for a pay freeze in the first year of the contract, management is demanding a massive pay cut.

In the context of soaring real-estate values for New York's landlords--and the rapidly rising rents that impose higher costs of living on workers--the building owners' demands are particularly greedy.

"A wage freeze is a terrible idea--it's unacceptable," said Edward Bonilla, who works as a concierge in a building with 238 apartments. Everything is going up right now. My kids are going to college. I can hardly pay for that. The way I see it, a wage freeze, givebacks on medical, on pensions, they would all be a strike issue."

Both sides appear to agree that a strike seems likely, according to the New York Times. Apartment building workers last walked for 12 days in 1991, and a similar level of militancy will be required for victory this time around.

Unfortunately, in last year's negotiations for office building workers, the union agreed to a first-year wage freeze in exchange for increased employer payments on health care. However, building service workers' expectations may be raised this year, as Local 32BJ members have had a taste of power in the streets in the city's recent immigrant rights demonstrations, which the union played a key role in organizing.

According to Local 32BJ president Michael Fishman, the union is not willing to accept the first-year wage freeze, the increased health care costs or management's demand to switch workers' defined benefit pensions to a 401(k) plan.

The local also hopes to align contract expiration with its more than 25,000 office building service workers to maximize their bargaining power. "The industry continues to enjoy increasing real estate values and rents, and they can easily afford the kind of increases we need," said Fishman.

The building owners' demands pick up where the city left off with transit workers in trying to drive down the living standards of workers in New York. The city pled poverty, saying it couldn't afford the transit worker's demands, but it also insisted that transit workers should accept cuts that other workers have.

The building bosses now want Local 32BJ to accept the same concessions as the office workers did, claiming that New York's building workers make the highest wages in the country. And they complain that their profits aren't going up, even if property values are.

"What the real estate industry is saying is not true," said Fishman. "The added equity in a building allows them to borrow against it and move money into another building. It's like someone saying, 'It doesn't mean anything that your portfolio has gone up $100 million.'" "Even at $17.94 an hour, our members are pretty much part of the working poor," continued Fishman. "It's not easy supporting a family in New York on $37,000 a year."

Carlos Padilla, a doorman on the Upper West Side, thinks that tenants are sympathetic to the workers' cause. "I don't think a strike would be a bad idea," he said. "It's really our only weapon to negotiate. We are ready to go on strike if we are forced to."

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