[UPDATE] New York City office cleaners avoid strike

[UPDATE #2] As New York City rang in the New Year, thousands of citywide workers celebrated their new and improved contracts. Negotiations concluded with an agreement to follow new four-year contracts for over 22,000 New York City office cleaners. The contracts include a 5.6 percent wage increase and bonuses totaling $1,100 as well as full employer-paid family health care coverage.

[UPDATE] Workers gathered on Wall Street, outside Grand Central Station and at the Grace Building on Thursday, December 29 to march past their worksites in response to the current contract negotiations.

The clock may not be the only thing striking at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Beginning January 1, 2012, the contracts of 22,000 citywide commercial building service employees expire.

Negotiations commenced on Wednesday, December 28 between the bargaining unit acting on behalf of the 32BJ Union and the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations (RAB), the association that represents major building owners, such as the proprietors of the Time Warner Building and the Empire State Building. While workers are hoping to reach an agreement at the bargaining table, they voted to call a strike if necessary.

“Because we are a few days away from deadline, it doesn’t look good,” said 32BJ Union spokesperson Kwame Abasi Patterson. “We are prepared to strike.”

Patterson alleges that workers are looking for adjustments in salary, increasing in line with inflation, as well as affordable family health care. According to Patterson, the RAB is considering instating a “two-tier” system in which current workers’ salaries will remain at $47,000 annually and new employees will receive lower wages, a tactic Patterson calls a “back-door attack on current workers,” and one the union refuses to entertain.

The RAB alleges New York City’s commercial building service employees are the highest paid in the country, also receiving generous benefit packages and full-family health care.

On December 21, 2011, RAB issued a statement from organization president Howard Rothschild, asserting his support of the city’s workers and standing by the benefits provided for them.

“For decades, the New York City real estate industry has created hundreds of thousands of high-paying, unionized and private-sector jobs as well as being the largest tax revenue stream in the city. We’ve presented the union with a fair package of proposals and we hope they will continue to come to the bargaining table in good faith.”

While most of the office buildings in question are located in Manhattan, Queens is home to the largest population of workers.

“[This issue] speaks directly to the community,” said Patterson. “This doesn’t just affect Manhattan.”

Long-time office cleaner and Astoria resident Sadila Mrkulic feels hurt by the negotiations and insists that current compensation is not enough to cover the basic costs of caring for a family and paying the bills. The single mother raised four children on an office cleaner’s salary, dedicating three weeks pay to rent and the fourth to purchasing groceries each month. She now supports her daughter and 15-month-old grandson.

“I feel we are not fairly treated,” said Mrkulic. “I hope [both parties] come to a conclusion on what’s fair. We are hardworking people – we are grateful that we have jobs.”

Mrkulic fears that after 40 years of employment, the “two-tier” initiative could force her out of a job. As an older worker, Mrkulic has “no doubts” that this system is designed to lay off older employees, making room for younger ones willing to accept lower salaries and fewer benefits.

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