Building workers at the luxury condominium 1 Lincoln Square are attempting to unionize. But not everyone on the building’s board is supportive of the effort — and the dispute appears to be escalating. Many of the condo’s 18 doormen and other building workers want to join the Service Employees International Union 32BJ. However, the building’s recently reelected board is insisting the workers go through what can be a lengthy and costly arbitration process with the National Labor Relations Board. And in a move that labor leaders say could be illegal, the board sent a warning to a vocally pro-union doorman.
Asking for NLRB arbitration is a rare move, but then again 1 Lincoln Square is no ordinary building. The condo, located at West 66th Street, is home to a number of high-profile residents, including sportscaster Marv Albert, MTV Founder Robert Pittman and public relations executive Ronn Torossian. The 30-story tower is also home to some of the city’s priciest listings; a penthouse there hit the market two weeks ago, with an asking price of $30 million, Streeteasy.com shows.
The dispute began about a year ago when 1 Lincoln Square workers received notice that they would have to begin paying for their health insurance premiums, Angelo Lopez, a doorman at the building, told The Real Deal. Lopez and his fellow doormen, handymen and concierges took inventory of their benefits — which do not include pensions —and began discussions about whether or not it would make sense to join SEIU 32BJ, he said.
While the 18 workers at the building make a higher hourly wage than their unionized counterparts at other buildings, Lopez said, they are willing to give that up in favor of better benefits. “We want to be unionized because after so many years at the building, we have no pension,” Lopez said.
But, the board, headed by President Lisa Menin, who declined to comment for this story, is asking for NLRB arbitration because they insist that it’s not clear whether the workers truly want to join the union, sources said. In order to join a union, workers must demonstrate that a majority of eligible workers want to join.
Of the building’s 18 workers, 14 are in favor of joining the union, according to Joe Eisman, the residential organizing coordinator for SEIU 32BJ, who said he has been in regular communication with the building’s employees. The workers in support of joining have said they are willing to have a secret-ballot election administered by a third-party arbitrator immediately, but the board has rejected this proposition, Eisman said. “Right now their official line is to fight any efforts by the employees to get into the union,” he said. He said an NLRB arbitration — which he estimated has been undertaken at less than one percent of New York City residential buildings — where workers have unionized with SEIU 32BJ, has taken as long as seven years to secure a contract for employees in other industries, and is simply a tactic to stall the discussion.
“It’s a basic power thing,” said Lopez, who added that many tenants at 1 Lincoln Square “are huffing and puffing,” at the board to allow whatever it takes for the controversy to be resolved. A December 12 protest outside at the building featured a labor dispute’s signature symbol: the menacing inflatable rat, and drew a crowd of supportive workers, according to a report in the New York Press.
Heather Albert, who is married to Marv Albert, called the building’s board “a five-member dictatorship,” according to the New York Press’ coverage of the protest.
The day after the protest, Lopez, who said he has unofficially come to speak for the workers who hope to unionize because of his good relations with residents, was written up. He received a notice that contained a threat of termination for becoming involved in the building’s “internal policies.” Eisman said that such a notice could constitute an illegal practice on the building’s part.
Lopez said he is in regular contact with the union, which is consulting with its legal counsel.
“[The workers] will get together and decide when to do the rat again,” he said.