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New York Building Cleaner Strike Could Have National Implications

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Members of the Service Workers International Union rally in downtown Cleveland Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011. Rallies were held in 22 cities as contract expiration dates near for 60,000 SEIU represented janitors and office cleaners from Connecticut to Virginia. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
Members of the Service Workers International Union rally in downtown Cleveland Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011. Rallies were held in 22 cities as contract expiration dates near for 60,000 SEIU represented janitors and office cleaners from Connecticut to Virginia. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

As the New Year's Eve contract deadline looms for office cleaners who attend to some of New York City's most iconic buildings and the companies that own them, janitorial staff in cities across the country have indicated they won't cross picket lines if the two sides can't reach a deal.

Should unionized building cleaners around the country stand in solidarity with the 22,000 New York City office cleaners represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, the city's cleaners' struggle could swell to include about 100,000 workers. Such an action could disrupt business operations in thousands of facilities in almost every state. A national labor protest could also test the country's new-found interest in issues such as income inequality, and could possibly even reinvigorate efforts to organize other workers, labor experts say.

"That would be a dramatic show of solidarity at a level that we haven't seen in a long time," said Lance Compa, a lecturer at Cornell's Industrial and Labor Relations School in Ithaca, N.Y. Compa specializes in international and domestic labor relations. "I don't want to overstate this, but that would be a very, very big deal for American workers."

In New York, contract negotiations continue between companies that own and operate the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Time Warner Building and about 1,500 other facilities. The Huffington Post also uses office space rented in at least one building that would be impacted by the strike.

The union's contract with building owners expires Saturday at midnight. Building owners who were not authorized to speak on the record say they are moving toward a deal. Union representatives, however, say the two sides are still far apart.

The managers of the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and the Time Warner Building did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

A MATTER OF FAIR PAY

The dispute between New York building owners and cleaners boils down to wages and benefits.

Building owners say that New York's unionized building cleaners are the best paid in the nation, earning on average nearly $50,000 in wages and about $25,000 in benefits. That is more than unionized building workers earn in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, according to data released by the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations (RAB). The board is representing owners in contract negotiations.

Building owners want the union to agree to a two-tier wage system in which new hires would be paid on a different scale. They also want to eliminate an option that makes it easy for cleaners to make automatic contributions to a union political activity fund.

Board president Howard Rothschild could not be reached for comment Friday because he was engaged in nearly round-the-clock negotiations with union members at a New York City hotel. Rothschild told The New York Times that some progress had been made but workers needed to prepare for concessions. He also said that owners have made preparations for a possible strike.

"RAB, and its owner members, are proud that we have the highest paid building service workers in the country in one of the most unionized industries in the city, but continued wage increases that ignore conditions in the current economy cannot continue," he said in a statement released last month.

Nationwide, the median wage of building cleaning staff amounted to about $26,400 a year in 2010, according to federal wage data. The data includes both unionized and non-unionized workers. Across all industries, the median weekly wages of union workers are $200 more than those of non-union workers who do the same jobs. Union membership fell to a 70-year low in 2010.

An SEIU television commercial airing in the New York area indicates that building cleaners earn about $47,000 a year when they reach the top of the union pay scale. Union officials also dispute the owners' claims that the industry is facing across-the-board distress.

Most New York office buildings escaped the vacancy rates of 15 to 20 percent that damaged building owners in other cities during and just after the recession. Instead, the average vacancy rate in New York peaked at 11.7 percent in early 2010, according to an analysis by Reis, a commercial real estate data service. The situation continues to improve, with most industry forecasts suggesting modest gains for 2012. In the last three months, the city's office vacancy rate has declined to 10.6 percent, with average asking rent having climbed to roughly $56 per square foot. That is still short of the three-year high reached in mid-2008 -- nearly $66 per square foot -- when the average vacancy rate was just 6.1 percent.

New York also has one of the highest costs of living, according to union officials.

In 2010, a family of two needed to bring in between $54,536 to live in lower-cost Queens and $78,476 to live in lower Manhattan and cover all of its basic needs, including food, shelter and health care, according to an annual measure released by The New York Self-Sufficiency Standard Steering Committee in June. (See Appendix C for additional family types and areas.) The committee is comprised of economic research organizations and agencies that advocate for low-income families.

While the nation's unemployment rate hovers near 10 percent, several labor experts who talked to The Huffington Post said Friday that this level of distress doesn't necessarily make the union vulnerable to salary cuts. Cleaners are doing work that many Americans would be unwilling to do at the same or less pay.

STRIKE LOOMS

If a deal between the cleaners and building owners can't be reached by midnight tomorrow, a strike could begin. Union members are prepared to take picket lines on the road to cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Oakland and others where cleaners have pledged that they will not cross them to work, said Kwame Patterson, a spokesman for SEIU Local 32BJ.

SEIU recently renegotiated contracts between cleaners and building owners in Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and New Jersey. Those deals include the option to stand in solidarity with other workers, according to Renee Asher, a national spokesperson with the union. Contracts that cover just over 155,000 cleaners around the country will also be renegotiated in 2012, she added.

If 100,000 SEIU members refuse to cross picket lines or go to work next week, such an event could have serious implications for building owners and the businesses that lease space in facilities across the country. Companies that own buildings in several cities could find themselves hunting for large numbers of replacement workers whom they would need to train and place quickly. Union officials have also said that UPS drivers, truck drivers and sanitation workers may refuse to deliver or pick up from buildings where picket lines form.

"The tradition of not crossing picket lines among working-class people is very strong, even today," said Michael Goldfield, a professor at Wayne State University, who studies labor, race and the global economy.

At Wayne State, in Detroit, Goldfield has heard students say they would "rather die than cross a picket line." For the sons and daughters of auto workers and other unionized employees, that is something that simply is not done. Goldfield adds that he never heard anyone say anything of the sort when he taught at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., where many of the students came from upper middle-class families and didn't know any union members.

Until the 1970s, large segments of the American workforce were unionized. The 1980s ushered in a period of aggressive and creative union-busting activities. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers after they violated federal law, went on strike and refused to return to work when ordered. In many of the industries that employ workers with limited skills and education, employers outsourced jobs like delivering groceries or cleaning buildings, turning once-unionized taxi drivers and delivery service workers into low-paid independent contractors. Many cleaners were pushed off building payrolls and onto those of cleaning companies that were not bound by labor agreements with unions. Those private companies secured contracts with buildings to provide cleaning services. They typically work small crews at odd hours, making it difficult for their workers to organize and, consequently, easier for employers to offer low pay and poor benefits, if any, Goldfield said.

"It's not a coincidence that most of these industries are today staffed very heavily, or almost exclusively, by immigrants," said Goldfield.

In the 1990s, an SEIU-funded organization, Justice for Janitors, staged a series of protests and bold acts of civil disobedience, including blocking traffic on the Washington, D.C.-area Beltway. Over the next decade, in contrast to other unions, SEIU managed to organize large numbers of immigrant and low-wage American workers around the country, Goldfield said. It also developed internal problems that inspired a breakaway group last year and, more recently, litigation.

LONG-TERM IMPACT

Today the prerecorded outgoing message on SEIU Local 32BJ's main telephone line indicates that members of the union staff can communicate in several of six different languages and are ready and willing to connect workers with a translator to discuss concerns.

After public officials attempted to curtail severely the influence of public unions this year, several national polls showed that the majority of Americans support the idea of collective bargaining rights, said Compa, of Cornell. Since the Occupy Wall Street protests began this fall, millions of Americans have also begun to think and talk about the implications of work without health care or wages that cover one's needs, and whether so much of the nation's wealth should be concentrated in the hands of so few people, Compa said.

If New York's building cleaners can ultimately prove that collective barging and action helped them hold onto wages and benefits that move them close to or into the middle class, other workers -- most of whom have watched their wages stagnate or decline in the last decade, and the gap between their own pay and that of executives grow -- will take notice, Compa believes.

"If they can demonstrate that on a national level, I think that would be an important model for the low wage-sector generally," Compa said. "That's important, because unfortunately, jobs that pay very little are a growing part of the U.S. economy."

Still, Goldfield is less confident about the implications of a national building cleaners' labor dispute.

"It's hard to tell what the impact will be, what spark will start the prairie fire," he said. "This could be labor's moment. But it's always hard to say beforehand if something will catch people's attention and lead somewhere. Who would have thought that the peddler in Tunisia who set fire to himself would have inspired the Arab Spring?"

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