A day before the contract for several thousand Bronx building maintenance workers expires, their union has reported that negotiations have gone abruptly south and workers are preparing to strike.

The workers, represented by 32BJ SEIU, voted last Wednesday to authorize their bargaining unit to call a strike if their contract demands are not met by the end of Tuesday when their contract expires. The union is in negotiations with the Bronx Realty Advisory Board (BRAB), a building maintenance organization that represents employers for over 600 Bronx buildings.

By the end of last week, negotiations seemed to be progressing. The union was able to get BRAB to discard a proposal that would reduce its employees health benefits among other contract stipulations that the union had objected to, according to a BRAB spokesperson. But Monday night, the process hit a sudden snag over wages and duration of the contract, according to the union.

BRAB said Monday that it would not agree to a contract that lasted beyond six months and a proposed to to peg essential workers’ wages and benefits to rent increases in the NYC Rent Guidelines Board.

BRAB’s maneuvering placed state housing policy at the center of the bargaining table. In a statement, Billy Schur, the president of BRAB, said its wage proposal is based on economic hardships that landlords face in the current economy, blaming state policies like the Emergency Rental Assistance program, a backlog in housing court and the increased tenant protections under the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act.

“We have said at every bargaining session that we want to work with Local 32BJ in securing decent wages and benefits for their members but they refused even to counter our good faith wage and benefits proposal, which is based on the economic realities of today,” he wrote in a statement to LaborPress.

32BJ leadership said that workers are trying to secure similar wage increases that the unions’ other maintenance staff have seen in their contract since the pandemic.

“After five bargaining sessions the BRAB backtracked and derailed our session yesterday [Monday] by offering a six month contract extension with zero wage increases and the potential for several years of wage freezes and benefits cuts,” said 32BJ Executive Vice President Shirley Aldelbol. “We made an offer that was consistent with past BRAB negotiations and negotiations in other residential contracts that have settled since the onset of the pandemic.”

The continued deliberations highlight the fact that in the Bronx the building maintenance workers’ wages lag behind their counterparts in the other boroughs, according to data provided by 32BJ. For BRAB porters, doorpersons, handypersons and superintendents, workers make $7-10 less per hour on average than their fellow unionized workers in the rest of the city.

The Bronx bargaining unit operates under a separate contract than the rest of the union’s building maintenance workers in the city, who all negotiate with a building maintenance group with a similar name, the Realty Advisory Board. That group successfully reached a contract with 32BJ workers last spring, which won over 12% wage increases over four years.
Unlike the other four boroughs, Bronx residential building workers were represented by another union until the 2000’s when 32BJ took over representation. The union says it has been trying to catch up to its other workers’ wages since then.

There is data to show that rent-stabilized landlords have experienced distress over the last few years. The City reported that the Rent Guidelines Board issued a report last year showing that rent-stabilized property owners’ net operating income dropped by 7.8% between 2019 and 2020 because of higher operating costs.

Pegging maintenance workers wages to increases in the Rent Guidelines Board lease guidelines for rent stabilized apartments could put political pressure on the municipal board to increase the costs for the city’s rent-stabilized renters. Last year the board voted to increase rents for the city’s rent regulated apartments by 3.25% — the first time it had increased this guideline since 2013. The union did not have data on the number of buildings overseen by BRAB that are rent stabilized.

On Tuesday morning, Schur sent out another statement saying that the Monday bargaining session had put him in touch with prominent city and state politicians, including Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Public Advocate Jumanae Williams, State Senator Gustavo Rivera and City Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, who called him personally to urge him to come to an agreement with the union. He wrote that he told them BRAB would like to secure decent wages and benefits for their members, before citing a litany of hardships landlords are facing.

“Bronx property owners have faced unprecedented economic issues following three years of COVID restrictions and skyrocketing costs from insurance to utilities, not to mention the financial disaster created by Albany legislators, who will need to fix it swiftly before it becomes worse for any other parts of our already fragile economy.”


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