February 27, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
The Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut offers visitors the chance to jiggle a live jellyfish—but its former cleaners say they got stung when management ditched its longtime contractor last December and hired lower-paid nonunion staff to replace them.
When the cleaners reapplied for their jobs, “they were told they would not be rehired if they were union members,” says Teresa Candori, a spokesperson for Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, which had represented them. The workers—three full-time and eight part-time, 11 in the summer and eight in the winter—are now pushing to get their jobs back.
The situation is “the other way around” from that of the airport workers Local 32BJ has been campaigning for, who lost pay, union representation, and benefits when airlines outsourced cleaning and security to lowest-bidder contractors, says Candori. “We had a collective-bargaining agreement with the contractor.”
The results were similar, however. The 11 workers had made $13.50 an hour under the contract with cleaning-services company Premier Maintenance Inc., says Candori, and even part-timers had some benefits. The new in-house workers get $8.50 with no sick days or benefits.
Aquarium president Jennifer Herring said in a Feb. 12 statement that with attendance eroding because of the recession, “the decision to terminate our contract with Premier Maintenance was made as part of across-the-board cost-cutting measures that also included salary reductions for three senior managers, including the CEO.” She also blamed PMI for not finding the cleaners new jobs.
The aquarium’s publicist, Dave Sigworth, said the 11 cleaners were “former employees of Premier Maintenance” and “were never employed by The Maritime Aquarium.” “Our contract with PMI prohibited us from hiring PMI employees,” he added.
“PMI waived any provision that prevented the Aquarium from hiring the workers,” responds Candori.
Local 32BJ filed an unfair-labor-practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on Feb. 4, alleging that “the Employer refused to hire any of the PMI employees on account of their union affiliation in order to avoid a successor bargaining agreement with Local 32BJ.” On Feb. 8, about 100 people protested outside the aquarium, and on Feb. 11, the Norwalk Common Council postponed deciding on whether to renew the aquarium’s lease.
Negotiations among the union, the aquarium, and the city continue, says Candori.