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.
The union is funded by the Building Service 32BJ Benefit Fund, which is 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.
Throughout the union's history and evolution, its stated goal has remained consistent. In its own words, the union’s mission is "to improve the lives of working people and their families and to lead the way to a more just and humane society."
To that end, 32BJ is involved in field services, contracts, grievances, community affairs, research, and legal aid. Its executives meet with city leaders and endorse political candidates, and the organization also works to improve building service industry standards and support its members by offering them continuing education and training.
“We have a lot of training courses for our members but I’m particularly proud of our Green Supers’ training program,” says SEIU Local 32BJ Communications Manager Eugenio H. Villasante.
The 1,000 Green Superintendents program, which is part of SEIU Local 32BJ’s Thomas Shortman training fund, is a collaborative effort between superintendents, property managers, union staff and 32BJ members that strives to increase the eco-friendly factor of New York City multifamily buildings by increasing the knowledge of green initiatives. The 40-hour course, which when completed, awards supers with green building certifications from the Building Performance Institute, covers multiple subjects in green building initiatives, including water conservation, utilities and energy benchmarking and sustainability/indoor environment quality.
“It’s pretty exciting. Basically the idea of the Green Supers training program is in order to weatherize buildings and make them more energy-efficient, you need to train the people who maintain those buildings,” says Villasante. “So they have to learn ways to prepare a plan to reduce the amount of energy that a building produces, whether its water, electricity or gas. So we teach the building supers or who is in charge of maintaining the building, various ways to maximize the use of energy and ways to insulate the buildings’ envelope so the building doesn’t lose heat from the windows or air-conditioning in the hallways and corridors.”
According to Mike Fishman, former president of Local 32BJ, who is now the organization’s international executive vice president, nearly 80 percent of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions are produced by buildings. So it’s imperative for owners, workers, environmental groups and the government to jointly tackle this important environmental challenge.
“The Green Supers program of the Thomas Shortman Training Fund—a labor management partnership, offers training to more than 80,000 32BJ union members working in the property services industry,” Fishman said in an August 2012 statement. “The Fund’s program provides 150,000 hours of industry, academic and computer courses at over 20 locations in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.”
Of course, the main thrust of SEIU-32BJ's efforts is labor organization. The temptation for building owners to hire non-union workers is great, given the disparity in wages (averaging about $6 per hour instead of $16 per hour) and benefits. SEIU-32BJ seeks to protect the rights of workers in every building—especially non-union ones—and encourage them to join the union. Among the most popular targets for unionization are upscale residential buildings (like condos and co-ops), and commercial and residential buildings in New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut.
Union members themselves take a hand themselves in their organization's efforts. Member political organizers take time out of their daily jobs and lives in order to work on political campaigns, participate in picket lines, advocate for fellow workers, and try to get other community members involved by registering them to vote and making them aware of the issues that 32BJ supports or opposes.
One of the most important initiatives the union offers through the Building Service 32BJ Thomas Shortman Training, Scholarship and Safety Fund (i.e., the Shortman Fund), and through other outside organizations like the New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM), is a curriculum designed to enhance the particular skill sets of the building service workers, whether they are a doorman, porter, super, concierge, or resident manager. The Thomas Shortman Training Fund provides training to eligible members of Local 32BJ in English as a Second Language, industry skills, and computer skills. It also provides college and graduate scholarships to eligible members and their eligible dependents.
Courses are offered, for example, in air conditioning and refrigeration, maintenance, plumbing, appliance repair, alarms, building management, budgets and preventative maintenance, carpentry basics, cooling tower operations, cleaning products and techniques, electricity, energy conservation, computer literacy, CAD, custodial engineering, extermination, fire safety, gardening, groundskeeping, heating systems, human relations, locksmith, security, standpipes and sprinklers, window cleaning, and much more.
Each year in September, 32BJ SEIU hosts its Annual Building Service Workers of the Year Awards, which recognizes doorpersons, security officers, stadium, theater, commercial office and school cleaners, handymen, and other building service workers who have made outstanding contributions in their workplace and community. So while going about our daily business we might not think of these dedicated professionals who work hard to make our lives easier but at least once a year they're recognized for their hard work.
“As a labor union representing middle-class workers we’re bringing them and their families a better quality of life,” says Villasante. “It makes us very proud.”
Hannah Fons is associate editor of The Cooperator. Staff writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.