Wall Street stockbrokers opening doors for themselves? Rich widowers hauling their own trash to the basement? A trust fund twenty-something hailing a cab? Is the end of the world near? No. Just the latest demonstration of the power of working people as 30,000 New York City apartment building workers prepare to go on strike.
The workers, represented by the union Service Employees International Union Local 32 B-J, voted on April 1 to give their contract negotiators the right to call a strike action. This was no April Fool’s gag. The workers are angered by the paltry contract terms offered by their employer, the Realty Advisory Board (RAB). With an average salary of $40,000 a year, these doormen, concierges, handymen and porters are seeking cost of living adjustments and improved healthcare benefits. If acted on, the strike action would the first since the two-week work stoppage in 1991.
The RAB is an association of thousands of New York City landlords. As negotiations spiral ever closer to the April 21 deadline, they have sought to tighten up unity by releasing a fifty-page manual for building owners and issuing a gentle warning against individual negotiations with the union. During the last doorman strike of 1991, several building owners bypassed the RAB and signed “me-too” individual agreements with 32BJ that ended the strike at their particular building. This weakened the hand of building owners. The tactic remains an active fear for the RAB in this latest round of contentious negotiations.
The workers, for their part, are focusing on the extreme difference between their stagnant wages and the soaring costs of living in the region. The Consumer Price Index for New York City has increased by more than 11% since the doorman’s last contract and the popular benchmark of the price of milk has soared by 10%. In addition, Manhattan rents continue to buck national trends of decline and amount to nearly double those in cities across the country. Real estate is still booming in New York City and the doormen are looking for their fair share.
A potential strike is significant in the broader context of organized labor in New York City. New York is a union town, but the overwhelming number of organized workers labor in the public sector. They are, therefore, restrained from striking by New York’s draconian Taylor Law, which enforces a three-day fine for every one day out of work. New York’s doormen are employed privately and any potential strike action could become a representation of the anger felt by all workers – public and private. No road to a general strike, but an opening through which workers in the city might realize their collective power.
The question of the bargaining bluff always remains. Is the union just trying to create some leverage at the table by throwing around the word strike in the media? Are they really preparing the workers for a long struggle on the picket lines? The RAB and their constituent landlords seem to be taking the strike claim seriously. A notice went out to thousands of doorman building dwellers last week to prepare for the job action. On April 21, Manhattan’s upwardly mobile may awaken to a world made a little less comfortable as picket lines replace concierge service. Or, they can pay a bill that is now long overdue.