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Wake-up call

32BJ’s contract win is a triumph for solidarity


The fine line between inflammatory rhetoric and sweet talk is best clarified by a fine labor contract. And a union stands tall with proud posture when it calls out the posturing of management. And 32BJ SEIU has done this by achieving a tentative settlement, subject to its members' ratification, with the Realty Advisory Board, just days before a threatened New Year’s Day strike.

The storm clouds looked ominous until the skies suddenly cleared and the sun came out in the form of a contract that is likely to be accepted by the rank and file. Although it looks promising, their decision should not be taken for granted until their votes are counted. The final judgment of membership must always be respected and not assumed.

It's fair to say, however, that the union is victorious. Relative to their original positions, management's concessions were astounding. Their demands had been sweeping, severe and unyielding, and their dire sincerity was plausibly conveyed almost to the moment of the final handshake.

The four-year deal would spare the 20,000 commercial cleaners and other workers what would have been a nightmarish setback. It seemed a sure thing that when the ball dropped in Times Square, the crystal ball would reach bottom with the word STRIKE in dazzling, bewitching lights, rather than "2024.”    

Maybe management had its own crystal ball and came to its senses before things hit bottom. Consider the stark difference and how far they came from showing their fist to curtsying. 

They were poised to lower the boom on their workers. They demanded an upending of existing health-care coverage, striking down overtime pay after eight hours, scratching some sick and vacation days, eroding job security (and thereby inhibiting certain workplace freedoms), and in a wretched union-splitting scheme, compensating future hires at a lower rate.

They were huffing and puffing but not bluffing.

Not content with advocating for economic stagnation for their workers, they sought to roll back the status quo in areas that were already far from robust. The pre-tax increases of under 3 percent that the workers have been paid in recent years was deemed an unaffordable extravagance by management, which every four years dusts off its anti-labor portfolio for a dustup with workers.

This time they blamed Covid.  

It was Mr. and Mrs. Omicron's fault for the hybrid work schedules and building vacancy rates that were squeezing their poor little purses. They conveniently forgot that commercial rent prices have risen, and the contention that building owners were suffering would give their accountants whiplash from throwing their heads back in rollicking laughter.

Despite an embarrassment of riches that they refuse to be embarrassed by, these real estate moguls would deploy bean counters with clipboards in hand, scouring and strutting through their prized properties as though with brooms up their butts, brainstorming with their confreres, to find creative means to further screw their workers.

As a rule, employers are driven by an insatiable lust for dominance over every aspect of their workers' lives on the clock. That is what they mean by "work to rule.” Workers can interpret that injunction differently, when push comes to shove. Maybe I'm painting with too broad a brush.   

I like to make management bristle. Even in those rare instances when their heart is in the right place. After all, it's still a corporate heart, which more often than not means no heart at all: defective ventricles and valves sewn into the wrong places.

But that doesn't rule out fruitful negotiation. 

In the case of 32BJ SEIU, they were undeterred by the RAB's shovelfuls of lame excuses about "unsustainable work rules" and were able to hammer out an agreement. That's because the union knew how to hold the hammer. They saw through and neutralized the feigned empathy that the RAB had expressed for the same workers whose plight their clients had engineered.

In the run-up to the strike deadline, there was a rally that drew a crowd that was reminiscent of the heyday of labor's shows of force. What part of the "hey" memo did management not get?  Maybe it was delivered by hand. Backhand. 

The New York City Central Labor Council, comprising 300 affiliated unions representing 1.3 million loyalists, and Region 9A of the United Auto Workers (UAW), as well as Senator Chuck Schumer, New York Attorney General Letitia James and City Comptroller Brad Lander were all on board and pumped up.  

Even a pledge of support from senior elected officeholders can yield tangible benefits. Maybe when the cameras and microphones were retired from the event, they used their influence.

But the lion's and tiger's share of the credit belongs to the union and its leadership. Because they fought smart and knew to hang tough, 32BK SEIU prevailed. As a result, there will be no work stoppage at 1,300 buildings, including the Empire State Building, World Trade Observatory, Hudson Yards and Grand Central and Penn Station terminals.

The tentative contract is a far cry from the terms of the travesty originally proposed by the RAB. No cry at all, actually. It was the RAB's opening salvo that brought tears, though tears of indignation and resolve.

Monumentally important is that workers will not be paying for their health insurance and there will be no "second tier" of employees with inferior wages and benefits. That Trojan Horse was slain on the bargaining table.

Average yearly pay increases will slightly exceed 3 percent.

A 10-percent pension improvement and an early retirement program that would be a 401K tonic for members are landmark improvements as well. Members are in the process of voting on the proposed contract right now. If they ratify, they will be getting $3,000 bonuses as well.  

After the tentative agreement was reached, the opposite sides came together in an extraordinary display of conciliation. The tone changed to reflect the perfectly reasonable and expedient reality that adversaries need not be antagonists. Speaking for RAB,  its president, Howard Rothschild, thanked Manny Pastreich and "his entire 32BJ team for working ... to find solutions,” and Pastreich commended his counterpart's "good-faith bargaining.” Notwithstanding the mutual backscratching, the probable settlement is more a triumph of union solidarity than a testament to the collaborative spirit. 

Members of other unions must never forget that they are integral to the labor movement, because they too are subjected to managerial exploitation and gambits. It's in the nature of the beast.

But some people are oblivious to a deferred threat against them, or else choose not to engage in conversations that they feel don't pertain to them. That's what motorists may feel about contributing to subsidies for public transportation. Or what some brainwashed taxpayers without school-attending children may feel about promoting and bankrolling education.

That's why the United Federation of Teachers’ recent lawsuit is essential for thwarting the "draconian and unnecessary" budget cuts to our public schools. An estimated $2 billion gash over this and next fiscal year would amount to a historic disinvestment in the future of our children and the city.

The city's Department of Education is bound by law to reduce class size. Implementation of that court mandate has been long delayed. It recognizes what should be a no-brainer: that teachers have a finite amount of time to work with individual kids who have a wide range of learning needs, and that the more kids are in class, the more limited must be the attention each student can get.

Every elite private school boasts a low teacher-student ratio as its prime selling point. Yet there are organizations which support the research that drives this fact for affluent students, but dispute its relevance for public school kids whose privileges are generally not economic. One of them has called this initiative to optimize learning "pernicious, disruptive, costly and harmful.”

In what alternate universe?

Nationally there is much scapegoating of public education. Sometimes it gets sucked into philosophical and governance debates like birds into airplane engines.

False claims come fast and furious to the detractors of public schools. It's no coincidence that they are usually hostile to teachers' unions, harping on the delusion that politicians and education policymakers are their puppets. It's bad enough their being mean-spirited. It's even worse to be wrong.  

Besmirching public school educators and their union with the slur that these professionals regard their students as "simply pawns" is a tactic of demagogues who themselves exploit our youthful treasure as sacrificial lambs. I speak only for myself but am sure that this is the majority opinion among persons of good will.

For the integrity of our city and our consciences, we must pursue justice on all fronts.

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