32BJ SEIU could strike if labor agreement isn’t reached in two weeks

Union members voted in favor of authorizing strike

A moment from Wednesday's rally (Credit: SEIU 32BJ)
A moment from Wednesday's rally (Credit: SEIU 32BJ)

If office landlords and union cleaners don’t reach an agreement on their wages and benefits by the end of the year, workers could strike.

During a massive rally in Midtown Wednesday, 32BJ SEIU members voted in favor of authorizing a strike should they fail to ink a contract with the Realty Advisory Board, which represents commercial building owners and cleaning contractors, by the December 31 deadline.

The rally and vote are a regular part of the negotiation process. It’s an opportunity for the union to publicly make its case and publicly put pressure on the RAB to give ground. Union members were corralled at Sixth Avenue and 48th Street following a short march from 41st Street. Several elected officials, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council member Ruben Diaz Jr., appeared at the rally. Members voted in favor of a possible strike by holding up a sign that read “ready to strike.”

“Negotiations with 32BJ continue to move forward productively. There is nothing unusual about a strike vote taking place and it doesn’t mean a strike will occur,” RAB President Howard Rothschild said in a statement. “In fact, these votes happen every contract year, yet there has been only one work stoppage with commercial building workers since WWII. We share the same goal as the union: to reach an agreement that fairly compensates our commercial workers while reflecting the economic realities the industry faces.”

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Still, there are key proposals that the RAB has put forward that union leaders have indicated could lead to a strike. The RAB says it has proposed “fair and reasonable wage increases,” while also asking workers to contribute to health insurance premiums — such costs are currently covered by employers — and introducing a lower-paid, less experienced level of employee next year. Other unions, including local construction groups, have introduced a similar tier system to help drive down overall costs and be more competitive with their nonunion counterparts.

The prospect of contributing to premiums and creating another employee tier are “issues of principle,” said Larry Engelstein, secretary-treasurer of 32BJ.

The union and RAB began negotiations Nov. 14. 32BJ has 22,000 office cleaners in the city, across 1,300 buildings.