“32. BJ!” “32. BJ!”
The rallying cries from Bronx building service workers of 32BJ SEIU reverberated from the top of the Bronx Supreme Court steps throughout the Concourse neighborhood Wednesday evening, as workers made it known that they intend to strike if they do not receive a fair contract from Bronx Realty Advisory Board (BRAB) by next week.
Shirley Aldebol, 32BJ executive vice president and director of the Bronx Residential Division, told the Bronx Times that three bargaining sessions remain between 2000-plus Bronx residential building workers — a workforce that includes thousands of door attendants, superintendents and porters — and BRAB before their current contract, which was collective bargained before the pandemic in 2019, expires at midnight on March 14.
When Aldebol asked a sea of purple and gold union members, battling windy and frigid temperatures Wednesday, if they were willing to strike next week — and also mobilize their individual building workers and tenants if a new contract was not reached by next week’s deadline — the answer was an emphatic yes.
“I’m hoping that (BRAB) sees that the workers are serious about preserving their benefits which is vital. But also that they need to be respected, that they should be paid for the work that they do and sacrifices they made during COVID,” said Aldebol. “It’s disrespectful for them to say ‘we appreciate what you did during COVID’ but we’re not going to pay you or maintain your health benefits.”
The current contract covers 1,404 workers at 433 co-ops, condos and apartment buildings. But the negotiations also impact 374 buildings and 950 other workers who are covered by a linked “Bronx Master Independent Agreement.” A further 87 buildings and 358 members are covered by separate contracts that are indirectly impacted, according to 32BJ SEIU.
A major sticking point in negotiations, according to workers, are proposals to reduce the scope of their health care plans.
Among a list of proposals floated by BRAB, is a plan to limit health coverage to 5 Star Centers, private practitioners that partner with 32BJ to provide care for members for $0 co-pays. Additionally, building service workers said that BRAB has offered a separate contract for superintendents that would eliminate overtime, just cause termination and strip their right to cross the picket line.
For union members like Tony Ameti, Wednesday’s rally was personal. Any loss or reduction in health benefits could be a life or death situation for his daughter, who he told the Bronx Times has severe medical needs and relies on those benefits for medication and treatments.
“They want to take away health insurance and stuff like that and without (those plans) I can’t access treatment for my daughter, and it turns her situation into one that is life or death,” said Ameti, a member of the union’s bargaining committee. “I see so many of our members living paycheck to paycheck, so when the BRAB proposed to take away our health care, it’s a non-starter. It’s a strike cause.”
Both sides have characterized the nature and tenor of recent contract talks differently. Aldebol said that both sides are “far apart.”
But in a statement sent to the Bronx Times before Wednesday’s rally, Billy Schur, president of BRAB, called recent negotiations “productive” and disagreed with the notion from 32BJ union leaders that recent sessions have not led to significant progress.
“No specific wages have been offered to date by either side yet we remain hopeful that we can work together toward a successful contract in the interest of our members, residents, and employees,” said Schur.
The Bronx Realty Advisory Board was founded in the 1940s to provide full labor representation to owners of Bronx residential buildings whose maintenance employees are members of 32BJ SEIU.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrinkle into recent negotiations, when building service workers were deemed essential and saw their roles and responsibilities change. Workers expressed to the Bronx Times that the pandemic — and close proximity to a virus that led to the deaths of tenants and service workers — reinforced the importance of enshrined health care and retirement benefits going forward.
“I think many of us have reached our breaking point. And we don’t want to do this, not to our tenants … but when does our labor start getting respected?” said Jose Guerrera, a West Bronx porter.
BRAB have pointed much of the blame on pandemic-era measures that aimed to provide financial relief for tenants such as the state’s eviction moratorium and the ERAP program – a government-funded rent relief program – which BRAB officials say was severely underfunded. What’s resulted, according to BRAB, is a Bronx housing market riddled with backlogged rents, inflation-buoyed costs on insurance to utilities, and record levels of accumulated rental arrears.
Last April, nearly 30,000 Manhattan building workers had threatened a strike over wage conditions, before receiving a new contract that bumps door attendant pay to $62,000 by the end of the contract in 2026. 32BJ official say Bronx workers, such as porters and door attendants, make around $19.66 compared to a wage of $27.13 in the other boroughs.
“Every real estate market in the city has basically suffered the same thing, and yet, everywhere in the city we were able to get a fair contract,” said Aldebol. “And they’re telling us in the Bronx that we can’t get a fair contract? That’s not fair and our Bronx members are tired of being treated like second-class citizens.”