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When the day is done for the tens of thousands people working in offices in the Empire State Building, at One World Trade Center, Hudson Yards and hundreds of other buildings in the city, cleaning crews move in, carry out their tasks in relative quiet and anonymity and, after a few hours, also leave.
The commercial cleaners, along with handypersons and porters, now have another job: Securing a contract with the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations before the end of the year. They’re doing so at a fraught time for both sides.
Office vacancy rates hover at around 20 percent and with hybrid work arrangements becoming the norm, uncertainty in that sector prevails.
And for the 20,000 cleaners, handypersons and porters, members of 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, meeting the increasingly pricey cost of living in a city some rank as the most expensive in the country, is at the top of their agenda.
“I think this is going to be an extremely tough bargaining, and especially given how it's getting harder and harder for our members to survive here in New York City due to the high cost of living, rising housing prices, inflation. It's like a struggle every single day for our members to get by,” 32BJ’s executive vice president, Denis Johnston, said in a phone interview earlier this month just days after hundreds of the workers rallied in Midtown in support of raises and to retain health-benefits the union says have raised thousands of city families, most of them with immigrant and working-class backgrounds, toward the middle-class. The current deal expires at midnight Dec. 31.
Although Johnston, who is also director of the union’s New York City Commercial Division, noted that the cleaners, who also work at Top of the Rock, The Edge at Hudson Yards, the World Trade Observatory and the Museum of Modern Art, on average earn just over $61,000 a year, that figure has been whittled away, obliging an increasing number to settle outside of the city.
“Yeah, we bargained a good contract in 2019, but with inflation running 6, 8, 9 percent during a large part of that period of Covid, our members’ buying power actually shrank during these last four years,” he said. “And this negotiation is really about whether or not our members will continue to be able to live in this city that they've called home for decades.”
Health benefits at the core of talks
Just as essentially, the union and the workers are intent on keeping their employer-paid health-care coverage, which for many provided essential and even life-saving benefits during the pandemic, when dozens of cleaners and other 32BJ members died of Covid-related complications.
“Our members are simply not in a position to go into their own pockets to pay part of that health insurance premium for themselves and their families,” Johnston said.
But the Realty Advisory Board, which negotiates collective bargaining agreements on behalf of commercial building owners, managers and cleaning companies, contends that 32BJ members are among just 5 percent of U.S. workers who don’t contribute to their health-care premiums. The board notes that the union workers get an employer-funded defined benefit pension, access to a 401K plan and “up to” 49 paid days off for holiday, vacation, sick and personal time, benefits union officials say have been secured only incrementally and over decades of organizing.
Board officials allude to failing commercial rent prices and persistently high vacancy rate, which the Realty Advisory Board’s president, Howard Rothschild, said add up to “unprecedented challenges.”
“Without changes to increase flexibility in our CBA, the future of the industry and our workers is in jeopardy. Now is [the] time for the union and industry to roll up our sleeves and come together to negotiate a contract that will provide for a sustainable future,” Rothschild said in a statement.
The two sides reached agreement on the current four-year deal a few days before the previous one was set to expire and just two days after union members voted to authorize a strike. It secured the workers a 10.81 percent wage increase, which this year brought pay for the average office cleaner to $29.47 before benefits. It also retained premium-free health care and instituted increased harassment protections.
About 10 weeks after those negotiations concluded, Covid shut down the city, including its offices. According to the union, one-third of its members were laid off during the height of the pandemic and the workforce was eventually trimmed by 2,000, which 32BJ officials argue accounts for the office vacancy rate.
Johnston said it was “outrageous” for the Realty Advisory Board to suggest that building owners bear large cleaning costs, which he said are paid for by tenants, and that they would seek to balance their budgets on service workers he characterized as vital to the city's recovery following the pandemic as well as following storms and terror attacks.
The union submitted its proposals Nov. 9 while the board is expected to do so next Tuesday. The two sides will meet several times between now and Dec. 31.
Johnston said the union is looking for fair wage increases and maintaining employer-paid family health coverage. It’s also seeking to improve members’ retirement security and to expand job protections for laid-off workers, including by extending the period they can return to work if and when the jobs come back, which Johnston believes they will. Although he acknowledged the challenges in the commercial sector, he also noted that residential rentals and sales activity is robust, and that employment has bounced back, which could well translate to an uptick in the commercial market.
The union will be holding a strike vote sometime in the next few weeks. But Johnston nonetheless held out hope for a negotiated settlement before the current deal expires.
“I think it's still very early in the process. We have 10 bargaining sessions scheduled between now and December 31, and we're fully prepared to bargain during the period between Christmas and New Year's and right up to the deadline,” he said.
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