Going about the course of our busy lives we may take for granted the sense of safety and security we have when we enter our office building in the morning or our apartment building when we arrive home at night. We don’t think twice when someone signs for our FedEx package, keeps an important phone message for us or accepts our delivery from Fresh Direct. There are some very important service workers to thank for these conveniences.
We can thank the some 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.
More Than 90 Years Old
The history of the union can be traced back to 1921 when the unionization of building workers began 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 Membership of 32BJ Today
SEIU-32BJ currently has about 145,000 members. The membership is 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.