Over the past few days, big steps have been taken towards the largest strike New York City has seen in years. 30,000 building workers represented by the Service Employees Union 32BJ are engaged in a bitter contract dispute with the Realty Advisory Board (RAB), the umbrella group representing thousands of New York City landlords. The RAB has demanded that workers accept a 50% reduction in sick time and vacation days, a charge of $100 a month for health care coverage and a multi-year wage freeze. In response, the workers, authorized their negotiating team to call for a strike action against the RAB, the first since 1991. Since this vote, 32BJ has mobilized a march of 10,000 workers and the two groups have initiated a virtual war in the local media.
The union has taken further steps toward the picket line. On Thursday, doormen took to the streets to deliver leaflets at local subway stations throughout Manhattan. The leaflet entitled “An Urgent Message to New Yorkers” laid out the worker’s rationale for striking and stated that, “we are prepared to sacrifice now in order to ensure that our families have a future of living and working in New York.” Union officials called this a “first-ever effort” to build support among New Yorkers during a contract dispute.
Political allies of the workers are also moving to turn up the heat on the RAB. Late last week, newly elected Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio created a tenant, condominium and co-op owner assistance web page and hotline ostensibly designed to assist the estimated one million residents who could be affected by the strike. DeBlasio has been an outspoken supporter of the union, so the creation of the hotline signals that the union is seeking to escalate the confrontation. Creating a cleavage between the building residents, the landlords and the RAB negotiators will be a critical task for any successful strike strategy.
Late Wednesday 32BJ took the most serious step yet towards a strike by appointing nearly 1,000 strike captains to help coordinate picketing. The captains were provided information concerning legal issues related to any potential picketing. Conducting the strike will be a monumental task since it would affect some 3,200 buildings, creating picket lines throughout the City. Newly deputized doorman Santiago Gonzalez expressed the determined confidence of the workers “We are ready to walk out if we need to. We all have families to support and rents to pay.”
Meanwhile, on the 7th Floor of the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers in Midtown Manhattan, negotiations continue on an almost round-the-clock basis. In an effort to debunk the RAB claims of poverty, an Industry Fact Sheet released by the union emphasized that the recession has ended and quoted a Crain’s article describing it as, “One of the mildest recessions in half a century.” In addition, 32BJ argued that building worker’s wages make up only 8% of building operating costs. Matt Nerzig, Chief Spokesman for 32BJ provided the latest update from the negotiating table, “The time has come for the $587 billion real estate industry to recognize that workers making $40,000 a year need wage increases to make ends meet in New York City.”
Public outreach has begun, the complaint hotline is ready and the strike captains appointed. As the clock ticks toward the 12:01 am deadline on April 21 all roads seem to be leading to a strike. If so, large swaths of Manhattan, especially the Upper East and West Sides, could be converted from a playground for the elite into a site of class conflict. New Yorkers may soon be asked to throw their support behind either billion dollar landlords or 30,000 building workers striking out for a fair contract.