Photo: Residential workers rally on April 13. Credit: SEIU 32BJ
New York City residential building workers won a historic tentative agreement as a result of their organizing. Their union, SEIU 32BJ, had been in negotiations with the Realty Advisory Board, representing the landlords of the buildings in which 32BJ members work.
The RAB had proposed to cut workers’ sick leave and vacation time, and most importantly start forcing workers to pay part of their health insurance premiums. Workers had previously enjoyed 100% employer-paid healthcare. As a result of these proposals, workers authorized a strike. Landlords eventually caved to the pressure, ensuring that workers succeeded in winning their tentative agreement.
The strike would have affected over 3,000 buildings and 555,000 apartments. The strike threat put fear in the hearts of landlords, who knew that the tenants of the luxury buildings in which 32BJ members worked would be outraged if their buildings were suddenly without services. The New York Post interviewed a few of these tenants, one of whom, Alisa Kauffman, said, “I don’t think it’s an easy job and I don’t think we’re going to be safe and secure without real doormen … They [building workers] were the ones who were on the front lines, now all they’re asking for is health benefits. This is all so upsetting.” The concerns of tenants illustrate how indispensable these workers are, many of whom worked on the front lines at the height of the pandemic.
In the midst of negotiations, Howard Rothschild, RAB President, said, “The average employee in the United States makes a contribution for family health coverage … We believe, in terms of this, our group of employees should pay their fair share.” This statement comes at a time when rents across the city are skyrocketing post-pandemic, placing even more money in landlords’ pockets. Rents in New York rose 33 percent between January 2021 and January 2022. But landlords were determined to make workers pay out of pocket for healthcare even though they stand to make record profits.
Workers responded by fighting back. On April 13, 32BJ called a massive rally of residential workers from all over the East Coast, as far as Miami. Ten thousand building service workers stood strong in this showing of solidarity. Labor leaders from unions including DC 37, SEIU 1199, New York City Building Trades, and Teamsters spoke at the rally. It was at this demonstration that workers voted overwhelmingly to give the bargaining committee authorization to strike if necessary. SEIU 32BJ President Kyle Bragg spoke at the rally, shortly before workers cheered for a strike, urging workers to “Empower our committee to go to that table and tell them, if you don’t get right, we can strike on your ass. Are you ready to do that?”
The result was a historic win for workers: An almost 12.6% wage increase over four years, the highest in 32BJ history, a $3,000 bonus for essential workers, protected paid sick leave and paid vacation, and the maintenance of 100% employer-paid healthcare. “It is an exciting time to be part of a labor union,” said bargaining committee member Crystalann Johnson.