By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
In November 2010, Renaissance Equity Holdings locked out 70 members of SEIU 32BJ at the Flatbush Gardens complex because the workers refused to accept a new contract calling for a 30 percent wage cut. The union filed a lawsuit claiming the lockout was illegal. Last week the workers got some good news when the National Labor Relations Board filed a motion for an injunction to reinstate the workers. But now a federal judge must decide whether an injunction is or is not appropriate.
The union scored a big victory in December when 22,000 commercial office workers reached a four-year agreement with the Realty Advisory Board. Mike Fishman, 32BJ’s President, said the members ratified the new contract overwhelmingly.
“It calls for a 5½ percent wage increase, a $1,100 cash bonus and more contributions from the RAB to strengthen pension and healthcare benefits.”
Top pay rates for new hires, however, will go up from 30 months to 42 months. “New cleaners will get 75 percent of top pay when they start and then 100 percent after 42 months. Otherwise they’ll get the same benefits as every other member,” Fishman said.
But the struggle at Flatbush Gardens stands in stark contrast to the RAB settlement. “This is a real fight. The employer didn’t want to reach an agreement with us, so they illegally locked out 70 workers. We don’t see an easy path to an agreement,” noted Fishman.
While Renaissance demanded a 30 percent wage cut back in 2010, the NLRB and 32BJ subpoenaed financial documents from the employer, which revealed the company distributed about $28 million to shareholders, an amount Renaissance didn’t share with the union during bargaining.
A 32BJ spokesman said that the $28 million discovery was just one breach that compelled the NLRB to file a motion for an injunction under the statute of the National Labor Relations Act, Section 10(j).
He explained that if the court agrees that an injunction is appropriate it will issue an order requiring the 70 workers be reinstated at their previous wages before the lockout began and a resumption of employer contributions towards the workers’ health care benefits while the lawsuit progresses in court.
When the workers can return to work is up to the federal judge presiding over the lawsuit. The spokesman explained there’s a hearing on Thursday, February 2 where the judge will decide whether the testimony 32BJ and Renaissance have already provided to a NLRB-appointed administrative law judge warrants the granting of an injunction or whether she needs more evidence, in which case she would order a hearing where both sides can present witnesses.
But the spokesman is confident that the judge will make a decision that will see the workers back on the job in a couple of weeks. Although she may grant the injunction, the issue of whether the workers receive any back pay will be settled in the lawsuit’s outcome.
Despite the big contract victory with the multi-employer RAB, the 32BJ spokesman said there’ll always be employers like Renaissance who think they should be free to cut workers’ wages from $19 to $13 an hour because they want to distribute more millions of dollars to themselves.
“When you have owners like this, you’ll end up in a fight.”
The spokesman also mentioned the NLRB’s significance in an era where Right to Work laws and dismembering of collective bargaining and public pensions are besetting union workers.
“We on the union side have complained for years of the slowness and ineffectiveness of the NLRB, but it’s an important agency to us because we need it to maintain the balance of power in the workplace. This case against Renaissance illustrates the positive role the Board can play in enforcing workers’ rights.”
Shawn Williams, who grew up in the Flatbush Gardens apartment complex and worked as a plumber with 32BJ before the lock out, said he is hopeful and excited about the possibility of going back to work soon.
He’s been making ends meet with unemployment benefits, limited financial help from the union and working some odd jobs. But it’s not enough to support he and his family.
Williams is one of four 32BJ members that also live at Flatbush Gardens. Because they’ve been locked out, they haven’t had the means to consistently pay their rent.
“Renaissance has taken me to court two times already.” Renaissance initiated eviction proceedings, but if the injunction is issued, the proceedings will be halted.
If he doesn’t get back to work soon, Williams said, “My bank account will need surgery.”