No winners in union’s fight with WeWork

Service workers group's push to get cleaners unionized backfired

From left: WeWork co-founders Miguel McKelvey and Adam Neumann (inset: 2009 illustration by Angelo Lopez)

For service workers’ union SEIU 32BJ, WeWork must have seemed like the ideal target. The shared-office provider, a poster child for Manhattan’s booming tech industry, tries to cultivate a public image as a do-good company creating a better work culture – and yet its contractor allegedly paid janitorial workers a mere $10 per hour.

Amid declining union membership, what better way to prove organized labor still has a place in the 21st century than by pressuring a leading tech startup to show solidarity?

But two months after 32BJ began protesting on behalf of WeWork’s nonunionized service workers, the dispute has left both sides bruised. WeWork saw its image dented and was forced to raise wages and change its employment practices in the face of public pressure. Most recently, it decided to offer janitorial workers English tutors after 32BJ alleged WeWork’s English-language requirement discriminates against immigrants.

If this sounds like a clear victory for the union, it isn’t. Most of the workers it claims to represent lost their jobs as a result of the protests, and WeWork’s new service workers aren’t unionized.

“We don’t consider (the campaign) a failure,” said Rachel Cohen, a spokesperson for the union. “The campaign’s goal all along was to make sure cleaning jobs at WeWork were good cleaning jobs.”

The drama began in June, when 32BJ staged its first of many protests outside WeWork’s 222 Broadway headquarters. The goal was to pressure Commercial Building Maintenance, WeWork’s cleaning contractor, into letting its 120 or so employees working at WeWork offices to join the union. But from the start, the shared-office company – not CBM – bore the brunt of the PR campaign.

“WeWork says it aims ‘to create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living,’ but many of its cleaners are struggling to survive,” the union said in a statement cited by BuzzFeed. The approach made sense: As a multibillion-dollar company hyperconscious of its image, WeWork seemed more likely to succumb to public pressure than a nondescript contractor.

And succumb it did, just not quite in the manner 32BJ had hoped. Instead of forcing its contractor to let its workers unionize, WeWork severed its contract with CBM. On Aug. 6, after numerous protests covered by news outlets such as BuzzFeed, the Guardian and Gothamist, WeWork COO Artie Minson announced the firm would hire around 100 service workers directly at improved conditions.

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WeWork created two types of positions, and will pay between $15 and $18 per hour. Workers, who will be either “Community Service Associates” or “Community Service Leads,” will also receive bonuses, healthcare benefits and equity stakes in the company, according to Minson. The firm announced it would interview all CBM employees who had worked at WeWork and lost their jobs following the end of the contract for the new positions.

Almost immediately, 32BJ pounced on an English-language requirement in the job listing, which it claimed discriminates against immigrants. Again, the tactic appeared to work. On Tuesday, WeWork announced it would offer language tutors “to support those new hires who would like additional practice in this area.”

By then, 32BJ had already shifted focus to the next alleged injustice: Of the 120 or so people that cleaned WeWork’s offices on behalf of its contractor, Commercial Building Management, only about 15 got rehired. According to a source close to WeWork, about 25 positions are still open, meaning that even in the best-case scenario 80 workers lost their jobs.

Once again, WeWork got pounded by the press. “100 WeWork cleaners who tried to unionize get locket out, workers say,” read the headline of a DNAinfo article published Monday. On the same day, 32BJ pushed out a news release announcing it held a “vigil” for the laid-off workers.

For the union, the outcome of the protests was arguably just as damaging as it was for WeWork. The organization claims that around 50 cleaners participated in the protests in some form. In return, most got the boot.

The union insists the fat lady is yet to sing. It filed an unfair labor practice charge, alleging that WeWork didn’t rehire most CBM employees because of their desire to join a union. Cohen also hopes that all laid-off CBM employees will soon be hired by WeWork as it adds new locations.

“They’re expanding and we believe that these cleaners should be back in the community,” Cohen said.