Within Striking Distance Local 32BJ and RAB Compromise on Contract

It took a rally, a march up Park Avenue, and some heated late-night negotiation sessions, but on April 21, 2006, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ and the Realty Advisory Board (RAB) were able to compromise on the terms of a new contract for the city’s supers, porters, doormen, and other building workers. The agreement was tentative, and involved concessions and compromise on both sides of the table, but it also headed off a strike that many in the city thought was inevitable.

The four-year agreement will not be official until it’s ratified by both Local 32BJ’s membership and the RAB’s board of directors, but as it stands now, the city’s 28,000 unionized residential building workers will receive an 8.5 percent pay increase over the course of the contract, and will retain both their fully-paid health care coverage and their pension benefits.

These terms differ somewhat from what both parties brought to the table when negotiations began.

On one side, negotiators representing residential owners and boards proposed that, in light of increased operating costs and health care contributions, building workers should shoulder more of their health care costs, as well as accept a one-year wage freeze and the possibility of adopting 401(k) plans in lieu of pension benefits.

Union representatives rejected outright the health care and pension-related aspects of the RAB’s proposal, and countered that, given the more-than-robust real estate market in the city, not only was a wage freeze out of the question, but that increases should at least match the rate of inflation.

The back-and-forthing went on until after 1 a.m. on April 21st — a little over an hour past the expiration of the union workers’ old contract, and the deadline union members had set for a possible strike.

In the end, while union workers got their raise and continued paid health care coverage, they were forced to accept a six-month delay before the agreed-upon increases begin to take effect, and a proposed cap on health care payments from employers in the third year of the new contract.

While some union and RAB members may feel that their respective side got a raw deal, sentiment on the part of the negotiators seemed positive when it was all said and done.

“Every agreement is a process of compromise, and both sides did that,” said James F. Berg, president of the RAB’s labor relations committee and the principal negotiator for the building owners in a statement to the New York Times the day after the agreement was reached.

Local 32BJ president Mike Fishman considered the outcome to be positive as well. “The contract is an important victory for Local 32BJ members who stood together and fought hard to maintain health care for themselves and their families.”

While the ending was by most accounts a happy one, it was by no means a foregone conclusion. Many involved in the process — including Berg himself, according to some reports — felt that a strike was imminent, and were very pleased that extreme measures proved unnecessary.

Local 32BJ members made a clear statement of their willingness to strike during a rally and march up Manhattan’s Park Avenue on the afternoon of April 18. Police escorts lead the marchers to a grandstand festooned with union colors, where union organizers spoke on the importance of health care coverage and exhorted members to stand together in support of their representatives.

Preparing Buildings

In the days leading up to the negotiation deadline, buildings across the city were making preparations, just in case an agreement wasn’t possible and a strike was called. While union reps and negotiators for the RAB were hashing out the details of a new contract for building workers, building managers, board members, and residents alike were all holding their breath, formulating contingency plans for the operating their buildings without their superintendents, doormen, porters, and other essential building staff members.

According to Peter Grech, president of the New York Superintendents Technical Association (STA), whose membership includes both union and non-union building workers, and a super and manager himself, little had been left to chance.

“Both the RAB and 32BJ did a good job in preparing buildings for a possible strike. There was nothing extemporaneous from either party about the strike, and both sides had a battle plan.”

Grech adds that he took an informal poll of around 60 supers and several building boards about their level of preparedness for a possible strike, and found that even though volunteerism among residents may often be hard to come by in ordinary times, most residents were ready to pull together to help their building carry on regular operations if a strike had been called.

“The main backup plan for most buildings was to have two sets of volunteers,” says Grech. “One set to man the front desk, and the other to deal with the garbage. The third part — which is not really formally organized — was to have people just clean up after themselves on each floor of the building. But that part should be done regardless of whether a strike is on or not.”

And what about support for the potential strike among co-op and condo residents and boards?

“This year marks my 30th year as a resident manager,” says Grech, “and this year was the first time that I saw a shift of residents’ support for workers from mostly positive to somewhat negative. When I spoke to people about this, the main issue seemed to be that of employees not having to make contribution to their health plan. Building residents couldn’t understand what the big deal was about employees paying into their health plan, since most of the people I spoke with had to contribute to their own health care.”

What it Means for Co-ops and Condos

As with any two-party negotiation, there was more to the RAB/32BJ process than met the eye. Margie Russell, executive director of the New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM) and an instructor at Local 32BJ’s training school, points out that while the main media focus was on money and benefits, not all of the items included in the new building workers’ contract was financial — and some will have a direct effect on building residents.

“One of the non-financial aspects of the new contract,” says Russell, “is that 32BJ’s school will offer a ‘Quality of Life’ training program for new and existing employees. [The program] will include — but not be limited to — tenant relations and appropriate conduct by residential employees. It will be a shortened, crystallized version of the Human Relations class presently being taught at 32BJ and will be geared to those employees who need an immediate infusion of etiquette and people skills training. Not only to do a better job, but to get those employees whose jobs may be in jeopardy because of poor performance on the right track in those particular areas,” she added.

As the new building workers’ contract goes into the final stages of ratification, most involved agree that the issue about balancing the means and expectations of buildings with the needs of their employees, and about properly valuing services that many of us take for granted.  

“If you want the convenience of doormen, and a staff, you have to pay,” says Grech. “While the money end of the picture may not be a totally rosy one [for buildings], there is a good side to it. It’s not just the employees that will benefit, but the employer as well. A happier crew is a more motivated crew. [Pay increases and continued benefits] bring a better spirit of belonging, and shows that staff members are appreciated and their families are valued.”

Hannah Fons is Associate Editor of The Cooperator.

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