Hundreds of 32BJ cleaners and security officers took to the streets in protest on June 26 in front of a Diamond District commercial building where four security officers were fired and six cleaners had their wages and benefits suddenly slashed.

After a new building owner Fifth City Realty LLC, an affiliate of Empire Capital, brought in a cut-rate cleaning company on June 1, the cleaners’ wages were cut almost in half to $16 per hour and their benefits were canceled.

“We were barely making enough before all this mess, how are we supposed to make ends meet now on $16 an hour and no benefits. That’s crazy,” said fire safety director Carlos Tejeda. “I just want my regular job back and to continue to live the life I was living. I was able to support my kids and help them pursue higher education and a good life.”

After Empire Capital bought the commercial building last year, its owners didn’t pay the cleaning and security contractor several hundred thousand dollars, according to the union. The conflict over the missing payments caused ABM, a cleaning company that had a recently expired contract with 32BJ with $29-per-hour wages and benefits, to withdraw from the building.

Four union security officers were fired, and Empire brought in a new cleaning contractor called L&J Janitorial on June 1 that slashed cleaners’ wages nearly in half and canceled the workers’ benefits, including critical family medical insurance. Empire did not respond to a request for comment from LaborPress, but according to 32BJ it has unilaterally announced it does not recognize the union.

“You basically got a billionaire building owner here that is the total bottom feeder. Their approach to their tenants, their approach to workers, their approach to the broader community are flying in the face of the standards of other responsible building owners,” said Dennis Johnson, the leader of 32BJ’s commercial and security divisions.

The six cleaners, several of whom have worked at the building for decades, are demanding the building owner commit to the union’s standard wages and benefits. The workers are in a difficult spot because their contract recently ended and now they are in a position where they have to negotiate a new one with the L&J Janitorial, this new contractor which is run out of a small apartment in Queens, according to the union. L&J Janitorial also declined to comment for the story.

“We have bills to pay. Water bills, electricity, gas, food, car payments, mortgage, everything. We are real people, with real lives, with real families. I rely on my health benefits for essential care,” said Nelly Navaro of Long Island, who has worked at the building for 18 years. “I just cannot afford to have my pay cut by more than half.”

For the moment, the workers have to continue to exercise their rights and try to get the contractor to come to the bargaining tab and revert back to the wages and benefits that they unilaterally changed once taking over the building.

The six remaining cleaners are guaranteed their jobs for several months under New York City’s Displaced Building Service Workers Protection Act, which requires certain new building contractors to retain service employees for a 90-day transition period. They’re also still covered under their union insurance, but that’s about to run out, so they’re getting to a critical point in their campaign.

“It’s certainly possible that, in addition to protests and leaflets and other activities, there could be everything up into and including a strike,” Johnson said.

Auriello Ordelon says that his job as a scaffolding installer with Cement and Concrete Workers Local 6a doesn’t just make him proud as a worker, it makes him proud as a father.

“I like to be part of the union,” Ordelon said. “When I say I was helping to build a building and do something, I feel happy that I’m doing something. That way in the future, I can tell my daughter, ‘Look, your daddy worked on this hospital.’”

With around two more years to go in his apprenticeship, Ordelon has set himself apart with his perseverance, pride in his work and his attitude. His dedication is being honored at LaborPress’s Apprentice Awards.

“It’s good that if you work hard that other people see what you’re doing,” Ordelon said.

Odelon came into the union apprenticeship at age 43 after moving from Mexico to New York city over 20 years ago and working to support his family in other careers through the years. Before he learned about the construction industry apprenticeship program, he was working in a supermarket, which had a decent salary, but no benefits or training.

“Nobody told me before about the union until I met my friend and I saw all the benefits that he had. So that’s what I told him to give a hand to introduce myself in the union,” Ordelon said.

Recently he spent an extended stint working on a new New York Presbyterian Hospital building in Long Island City, which filled him with a sense of accomplishment. In his role as a scaffolding installer, Ordelon takes pride in the safety training that separates union from non-union construction sites. When you’re working on a building that stands over 50 stories tall, safety precautions are what keeps your family from worrying about you.

The apprenticeship has taught him how to suspend the scaffold in accordance with a list of important safety regulations. He can take pride knowing that he’s keeping his colleagues safe and that he is contributing something important to the city.

“I applied for this job because I like it and I want to be something good for my family. I want my daughter to be proud of her dad,” Ordelon said.

32BJ workers rally in the Diamond Dsitrict (Photo courtesy of 32BJ)


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