If you feel safe entering your office or apartment building, see clearly outside your apartment window to gaze at the New York City skyline or receive a package of important papers on time, you have some very special service workers to thank. They are the 120,000 doormen, building security guards, superintendents, window cleaners, porters, custodians, and theater and stadium workers in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and five other states along the East Coast. This cohort of workers comes from more than 60 countries around the world and its members speak nearly 30 different languages, but they are represented as a single group by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, the largest building service workers union in the country.
The unionization of building workers began in 1921 with the organization of the Chicago Flat Janitors. That organization eventually evolved into the Building Service Employees International Union (BSEIU) led by William Queese. The union's first decade was rocky, with membership roles in the New York and New Jersey chapters lackluster, but by World War II, after two major strikes in the previous decade, the chapters had gained more supporters and members. By the end of the 1960’s, through recruitment and mergers with smaller organizations, the union had grown to over 40,000 members.
By 1977, the Local 32B union had merged with Local 32J, and the resultant 32BJ became the nation's largest union. The group organized another major strike in1996, when some 30,000 office building workers walked off the job to protest for higher pay and expanded benefits. By 2001, the union had enough clout to support local candidates for office throughout the tri-state area. supported local candidates who won major elected offices throughout the tri-state area.
The Makeup of 32BJ Today
The members of SEIU-32BJ are divided into 13 districts, according to geography and job type. Districts in Manhattan include Downtown, Garment/Midtown South, Upper East Side and Upper West Side. Queens, Brooklyn, Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut and New Jersey have separate districts, and there are also distinct divisions for window cleaners and theater and stadium workers. Among the districts are 1,300 shop stewards, who liaise between the executive board and the rest of the organization. The union’s joint executive board comprises at-large officers, at-large board members, district officers, and district members. Union auditors and committee members are selected at large, but do not serve on the executive board.
The union is funded by the Building Service 32BJ Benefit Fund, responsible for supporting the Building Service 32BJ Health, Pension, Supplemental Retirement Savings Plans and the Thomas Shortman Training and Legal Services Funds. Currently, about 1,800 employers make contributions according to the terms of their union contracts. Ultimately, individual union members' benefits are determined by the contract under which they work.