32BJ Building Service Workers in NYC Refuse to Surrender Healthcare Benefits; Authorize Strike

New York, NY – Building handyman Stephen Yearwood made it through the worst of Covid-19 before a late-stage variant of the virus broke through his vaccine defenses just a little while ago, and sent him into 10-day isolation. He was lucky. Forty of Yearwood’s 32BJ union brothers and sisters died during the pandemic’s height. Hundreds more got sick. 

The looming prospect of having to surrender essential healthcare benefits already won at the bargaining table in the wake of such a tragedy has convinced 32BJ members to authorize a strike a week before their current contract with the Realty Advisory Board — the body charged with negotiating collective bargaining agreements on behalf of building owners — expires on April 20. 

“We have healthcare and we have no intention of compromising our healthcare,” Yearwood told LaborPress during a massive Park Avenue union rally stretching from East 79th to East 83rd on Wednesday, April 13. There are things we already won — we don’t want to have that kind of conversation with them.”

Ricardo Duchanan is a 32BJ member who works as a building handyman in Harlem. He’ll be 66-years-old next month. Like Yearwood and the rest of his union brothers and sisters, Duchanan stayed on the job through the darkest, most uncertain days of the Covid-19 pandemic, becoming lifelines to the building tenants they serve. 

“Nobody wants to strike — but if need be, we’ll strike in a heartbeat if necessary,” Duchanan told LaborPress. “Here in America, the cost of living is getting higher — and the cost of healthcare is getting higher, too. We need reasonably-priced healthcare. Working people are treated unfairly. I’m hoping that we can come to an agreement. But if we can’t, I’m prepared to stand with my brothers and sisters. If we’ve gotta strike — we will.”

The union’s building service workers haven’t walked off the job since 1991. Indeed, thirty years of “labor peace” is something the heads of the Realty Advisory Board enjoy touting. 

32BJ President Kyle Bragg, anticipated healthcare would be a major bone of contention — pandemic or not — at the start of current contract negotiations in March. 

“We expect healthcare and wage increases to be front and center at the bargaining table,” Bragg said. “As many residents in New York worked from home, our members continued to go to work and provided essential services that made remote work possible — and that’s because our members are no strangers to a challenge. They have worked through multiple crises in this city — from 9/11 to hurricanes and natural disasters. This pandemic was just the most recent challenge that our members have overcome. And, it has shown how essential our members are to the character and success of New York.”

Building owners claim the pandemic has dinged their pocket books and they want their employees to “share” healthcare costs. But that’s a nonstarter for 32BJ, the largest property service workers union representing 175,000 members across 12 states. 

“The building owners want us to take money out of our paycheck to pay for healthcare every month, whether we use it or not,” Bragg said on Wednesday. “We will not stand for premium sharing and we will not stand for anything that disrespects the time and work our members have given over the past two years. We’ve had to fight for every single thing we have in our union contract: paid days off, health care, workplace protection, a pension. This is no exception.”

The drive to push healthcare costs onto 32BJ porters, door attendants, superintendents, concierges and handypersons predates the pandemic. 

Back in 2019, as a New York City Council Joint Health & Hospitals Oversight Committee was about to convene a hearing on exploding healthcare costs, 32BJ Secretary-Treasurer and Health Fund Trustee Larry Engelstein said, “Every time we go to the bargaining table on behalf of our members, [healthcare] is the central issue we have that may lead to strikes in our industry.”

Indeed, one of the main contributing factors to the three decades of “labor peace” New York City building owners have enjoyed has been 32BJ’s willingness to hit the streets and strike. 

“And when the time comes for the contract to expire — if we don’t have a contract, we will be ready to strike,” late 32BJ President Hector Figueroa told hundreds of members rallying outside Bryant Park in June 2019. “This is about our families, this is about our lives, this is about the dignity of being a worker in this union.”

Real Estate Advisory Board head Howard Rothschild downplayed the threat of a strike, saying the authorization vote “happens every four years.”

“It simply allows 32BJ the option to strike, should we be unable to reach an agreement,” he said in a statement this week. “The RAB has proposed fair and reasonable wage increases, as well as the sharing of healthcare costs through employee contributions to the premiums, of which employees currently pay zero.”

Yearwood, a member of 32BJ’s current bargaining committee, started out his union career back in 1981 as a porter. Since then, he said the union’s training fund has allowed him to study electrical work and plumbing. 

“I would like to be optimistic about [averting a strike] and I do hope we will be able to come to a compromise,” he told LaborPress. “But we want to maintain what we have because we were the ones putting ourselves on the line [during the pandemic].”





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