12/28/2011 06:16 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2011

Building Cleaners Strike Looms In New York

Workers who clean more than 1,500 buildings in New York -- including iconic facilities such as the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and the Time Warner Building -- could walk off their jobs and form picket lines as early as Sunday.

Contract negotiations are scheduled to end Thursday between the owners of some of the city's biggest buildings and Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, a union that represents about 22,000 building cleaners in New York. The union's contract with building owners expires Saturday, Dec. 31, at midnight.

The two sides have been unable to agree on a series of issues related to pay.

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. An SEIU television commercial airing in the New York area indicates that building cleaners earn about $47,000 a year on average.

Building owners also want the union to agree to a two-tier wage system in which new hires would be paid on a different scale. Over time, the lower wage scale would reduce building owners' labor costs.

The United Auto Workers union, long regarded as the nation's most powerful organized labor group, agreed to a similar two-tier wage scale in 2009, as automakers struggled to compete with foreign automakers and wrestled with the possibility of bankruptcy. A federal government bailout and worker concessions helped to shore up the nation's top three automakers and, the companies said, and saved about 3 million jobs. Since that time, the system has saved automakers millions, but has also left many auto workers in dire economic straits and bred deep resentments between the union and workers who are paid on the lower tier.

In New York, round-the-clock talks between the union and building owners started last Wednesday, the Associated Press reported this week. Building owners say they are grappling with increased vacancy rates and falling rents and cannot afford to continue to pay workers at the same rate.

Union officials dispute the owners' claims that the industry is facing across-the-board distress. New York City also has one of the nation's highest costs of living.

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 own 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 poor and low-income families.

It has been more than a decade since building cleaners last walked off the job over work conditions or pay, WNYC- FM, a New York NPR affiliate, reported Tuesday.

The impact of a strike on normal business operations is unclear. The managers of Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building did not respond to requests for comment late Wednesday.

Building owners are preparing for the strike by ordering up needed repairs, making arrangements for workers to handle the duties of security desk attendants and building porters and requesting extra fuel deliveries, as a variety of building staff are also expected to walk off the job in support of the strike, should one occur, the Associated Press reported. Union officials have denied such plans.

Many essential business services and functions could be disrupted if a strike occurs, said Matthew Nerzig, a spokesman for SEUI Local BJ32. UPS drivers may refuse to cross a picket line to deliver packages, he said. And sanitation workers may be unwilling to pick up a building's trash.

Some of the buildings that could soon be surrounded by picket lines are not only spaces in which people work and eat, but major tourist attractions. Rockefeller Center houses both NBC News and shows that are taped in front of a live studio audience such as "Saturday Night Live." The Empire State Building attracted about 4 million visitors, who together payed about $60 million to see the city from the building's observation tower last year, the New York Times reported Sunday.

SEIU Local 32BJ represents more than 120,000 building cleaners, security guards, doormen, porters, maintenance workers, food service workers, window cleaners, bus drivers and their aids in eight states and Washington, D.C. These employees work in public and private facilities, office buildings, schools, theaters, museums, arenas and stadiums.