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Latino Cleaners Say WeWork’s English Language Requirement Is Union-Busting

August 12, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco

Latino workers, including Nestor Melgar and Yolanda Portillo, are fighting for their jobs at WeWork locations.
Latino workers, including Nestor Melgar and Yolanda Portillo, are fighting for their jobs at WeWork locations.

New York, NY – Office cleaners who have spent months fighting for better wages and benefits at WeWork co-working locations throughout the city, will instead be out of a job in a few weeks — and the predominately Latino workforce says it's all because they agitated for the right to unionize. 

Until now, the hugely successful WeWork had contracted an outfit called Commercial Business Maintenance [CBM] to cover its custodial needs. But CBM terminated its contract with WeWork effective August 23, following weeks of struggle in which low-wage workers making as little as $10 an hour fought for a better deal.

WeWork, in turn, has decided to quit contracting out custodial work all together, and hire its cleaning crews directly. That now means all those presently performing custodial duties at WeWork locations around town, must submit fresh applications to WeWork if they hope to continue working there. A new English language requirement, however, could disqualify many of the Spanish-speaking workers who need to keep their jobs. 

“I feel very bad because my English is no so good, but I don’t see why that has to be a requirment,” CBM employee Yolanda Portillo told LaborPress through an interpreter this week.

The 42-year-old emigre from El Salvador has been working the 5 to 9 p.m. nightshift at the WeWork outlet located at 34th Street and 5th Avenue for about a year. She makes $10 an hour cleaning 50 offices on two floors, in addition to all adjacent bathrooms and hallways. 

WeWork maintains that the ability to communicate in English is necessary for the roughly 150 cleaners now facing permanent termination because they are occupy so-called “member-facing positions.” 

While Portillo concedes her existing English language skills may be limited, she insists that she’s never be unable to comply with a request – and, in any event, has very little contact with WeWork’s clients on the night shift. 

“It’s not fair,” co-worker Nestor Melgar told LaborPress. “We’re here to clean. It’s not like we’re interacting with members. And we all help each other, anyway. It’s totally discriminatory.”

Others like Portillo and Melgar who have been cleaning WeWork locations for the last year or more, say that their English language skills were never an issue when they were originally hired. 

In addition to being discriminatory, they insist that WeWork’s new English language requirement is really just an effort to weed out pro-union workers. 

“I am 100-percent sure that is the cause,” Portillo said. 

“There’s no excuse [for it],” the 26-year-old Melgar added. “We’re doing a good job. They want to get rid of us because of this union activity.”

SEIU 32BJ, the union fighting on behalf of the cleaning crew, agrees. 

“Yes, 32BJ is concerned that the English requirement and other requirements in the application process may be used as a pretext to keep out the current workers who have been fighting for good jobs and a union,” spokesperson Rachel Cohen told LaborPress.

WeWork adamantly refutes the anti-union charge.

"That is absolutely not true," a WeWork spokesperson told LaborPress. "Because this is a member facing role we ask for some ability to communicate in English. In other countries that WeWork is located in we ask for employees in every role to speak the language of that country. WeWork respects every employee’s right under the law to choose or not to choose to join a union."

While the company maintains that the English language requirement placed on office cleaners is for the benefit of WeWork members, Melgar, insists that WeWork clients are actually behind him and his Latino co-workers. 

“They say they cannot believe WeWork is not paying us well,” Melgar said. “They are supporting us.”

Portillo, meanwhile, said that she would like to improve her bilingual skills, but that dividing time between work and English classes has, so far, proven prohibitive. 

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