September 20, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Workers at 295 Madison Avenue – some with more than a decade of employment at the Midtown building – are fighting back against a new cleaning contractor that has summarily cut wages in half and virtually eliminated basic benefits overnight. (Watch Video)
“God knows how we’re going to handle it,” 59-year-old Husnijah Betktesevic, told LaborPress at a 32BJ rally held outside the building on Wednesday. “I’m going to survive…but I don’t know how my wife Sabaheta is going to survive.”
The building’s porter is afraid for his wife of 32 years because she is currently battling cancer, and the Brooklyn family of five’s employment-based health insurance is slated to disappear next week as a result of the cutbacks.
According to Betktesevic, that knowledge is only making his struggling wife sicker.
“It’s not acceptable to buy a building, bring in a new cleaning company, and slash people’s salaries,” New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told a throng of union supporters assembled on East 41st Street this week. “It’s not okay that on one day, your work was recognized with wages and benefits that you deserve…it's not okay that on one day, you were being paid a decent wage – and then the next day, for the very same work, you’re getting half of that – if not less.”
Indeed, workers say that after 295 Madison Avenue was sold to the Eretz Group in August, the new new cleaning company they brought in called Novel Service Group [NSG], wasted no time gutting salaries from $22.97 an hour to just $12 an hour, and eliminating paid sick days, holidays and insurance packages, as well.
“The new owner of this building chose to get rid of a responsible contractor – a union contractor who pays the standard wages for the area – for a contractor that not only doesn’t pay the area wages, but is not providing health benefits to these workers, not providing sick days to these workers, not providing all the basic benefits that they have enjoyed, and that all of us enjoy under a union contract,” 32 BJ Vice-President Shirley Aldebol said.
Twelve-year building employee Marlon Escoto said that he and his fellow co-workers have gone from being “productive taxpaying citizens to the working poor – in just one night.”
“It’s wrong that when you dedicate yourself to a building, a new owner can just come in and say, ‘Everyone’s out.’ It’s not right. And it shouldn’t happen in this city. How are we supposed to pay rent, mortgage, food, insurance? It’s impossible.”
Fadila Mrkulic, a member of 32BJ who works at a nearby building, said that similar draconian cuts were imposed on her and her co-workers several years ago, but that with the union’s help, they were able to fight back.
“I want to know the owner who purchased this building, why he’s hiring this company that humiliates [us]?” Mrkulic said. “They’re taking our dignity away from us. They’re taking our livelihoods away from us. I wonder when they look at themselves in the mirror how can they live with themselves.”
Many 295 Madison Avenue tenants appear to agree, as a group of them bearing pro-worker signs took time out to participate in this week’s rally against NSG's radical cuts.
“If I were a tenant in this building, I would ask myself, ‘If the workers are making half the salaries and not getting benefits – of which I pay for as part of my rent – why am I not getting a reduction in my rent?’” Aldebol said.
City Councilwoman Gale Brewer – the woman poised to become Manhattan’s next borough president – called the cleaning crew at 295 Madison Avenue, as well as the rest of New York’s blue collar workers, the “backbone of the city.”
“And if you are the backbone of the City of New York, you should get paid correctly,” Councilwoman Brewer said.
Janina Barglowska, another 295 Madison Avenue worker with well over 10 years on the job, said that if need be, she is ready to strike in order to roll back NSG’s anti-worker measures.
“Yes, sure we’re ready to strike,” Barglowska said. “We have nothing. No paid vacation. No insurance. It’s very bad.”
Despite the uncertainties surrounding her political future, Speaker Quinn pledged her unwavering support to workers at 295 Madison Avenue – and said that their ultimate victory will have serious ramifications for other workers throughout the city.
“We’re not going to give up, and we’re not going to give in,” Speaker Quinn said. “And when you prevail here, that will be heard all over the city.”