July 16, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Up until now, IBEW Local 1212 member Gary Roth had spent the last three decades of his life steadfastly documenting premieres, presidents and prime ministers arriving at the United Nations in sleek, black motorcades to address a waiting world. Today, however, Roth is out of a job, training to be a lifeguard at a YMCA swimming pool in Manhattan and wondering just what his many years of dedicated service to the UN has amounted to.
“I consider myself one of the lucky ones,” Roth says. “Right now, training to be a lifeguard is occupying my time and holding my interest.”
Roth is not the only UN veteran who’s life has been upended since a new contractor called TeamPeople was brought in to administer the UN’s conferencing, broadcasting and audio/visual services. Other Local 1212 members who’ve dedicated years working for the UN – and even made sure that vital news events continued to be broadcast when workers weren’t being paid – have also been pushed out the door, or seen their compensation packages virtually decimated. All thanks to a managerial decision that makes it all but impossible for a contractor to sign a union contract, according to the local.
“After 65-plus years of utmost cooperation with the UN, for me as a business manager, it’s dumbfounding how the United Nations can go against its own mandate as far as the rights and concerns for workers and their families,” Local 1212 Business Manager Ralph Avigliano says.
IBEW Local 1212 has successfully represented broadcast engineers at the UN for over 67 years, beginning in 1945. From 1973 to 2011, the union represented employees working for no less than four different UN contractors. In 2009, things began to get wonky when a corporate contractor called VSG went out of business and for roughly three weeks, Local 1212 members continued to perform their vital UN assignments without compensation.
“There was a brotherhood there and a sense of fairness,” says 35-year UN veteran Mark Robbins. “We were the wheels of the UN. We never let the UN down. Ever. Management didn’t do the job. Didn’t show up for press conferences, didn’t show up for security council meetings. So, we just did what we had to do. We rolled whether there was a director there or not. And many times, there wasn’t a director. We always had it covered.”
In 2011, the engineering staff was cut from 60 employees down to 46 after the latest UN contractor was brought in and a new collective bargaining agreement was reluctantly reached, which allowed the UN to hire employees directly. Those employees were subsequently brought out of the local’s bargaining unit.
According to Local 1212, the UN’s latest Request For Proposals – forcing longtime employees like Roth and others to reinterview for their UN jobs at drastically reduced compensation and benefits levels – makes it almost impossible for a contractor to sign a union contract.
“We worked with four other contractors and it was seamless,” says Vinny Butler, IBEW Local 1212 senior business representative. “The last time they made a change the decision was to get rid of the union.”
Roth blames the beginning of the end on the UN’s capital master plan for the entire NYC campus.
“That building has never been renovated since they put it up,” Roth says. “They have done a gut renovation, and at the same time upgraded all the conference room electronics, all the broadcast equipment, hi-def, fiber optic and robotic cameras in all the rooms. Since they did that, they wanted to own most of it. They didn’t want any vulnerability with a contractor having any power over all of this expensive new equipment. They wanted to own it.”
Butler, himself a broadcasting veteran with decades of history with the UN, finds management’s decision to toss out the union particularly galling.
“My father worked there before I did,” Butler says. “I’ve had an association with the UN for most of my life. Other people are not in quite the same position, but have put in 30-plus years there. They were loyal to the UN as well as the contractor they worked for and the services they provided. It’s very hard to take.”
Beyond that, the union also finds the UN’s treatment of its longtime workforce “hypocritical” and “unjust” given its global mission and purported stance on workers’ rights.
“To say that this has affected Vinny, myself and others deeply, would be an understatement,” Avigliano says.
UN management, however, appears to be throwing up its hands and denying any adverse responsibility.
“Under the UN's contract with TeamPeople, as with any contract for services entered into by the UN, it is the sole responsibility of the contractor to hire and provide the workforce to perform the contracted services,” Eduardo del Buey, deputy spokesperson for the secretary-general, said in an email. “In doing so, the UN's contract requires that TeamPeople, like any other UN contractor, comply with all laws applicable to the provision of such services to the UN, including all applicable employment and labor relations laws. The UN will require TeamPeople to adhere to these contractual obligations.”
But that’s not saying much, according to Butler.
“If you look at the RFP, you can see in there that they [UN] are not interested in the loyalty of the workers that they had there for over 30 years,” Butler says. “With all of the work conditions, and pay conditions, all they have to do is follow the labor laws, which means they could have paid the minimum wage. But also, 40 hours of work are not guaranteed, and none of the benefits are really guaranteed. Also in there, the UN has the right to review and confirm all hires. So, if they are saying that the company [TeamPeople] has the sole responsibility for the hires, that’s not what it says in the RFP.”
Time To Reorganize
Now that they’re out in the cold, IBEW Local 1212 doesn’t intend on staying there. TeamPeople’s UN contract, begun on July 1, runs for two years and has options to extend.
“Our goal is to get back in and negotiate with the new contractor,” Avigliano says. “That would be optimal. To negotiate wages and a benefits package [for workers] that is at least close to what they previously had. Right now, people are afraid to be out of work. But we are most certainly going to reach out to them and try to reorganize.”
That outreach effort, however, is going to be difficult given the UN’s notoriously tight campus security that makes it even difficult for NYC first responders to access the site. But many union supporters say that shouldn’t be a deterrent.
“Half the organization doesn’t believe what was done was appropriate,” Robbins says. “I’ve never seen this kind of behavior before. This is the United Nations? The organization that prides itself on the dignity and worth of the human person?”
Ernie Crow, principal for the Virginia-based TeamPeople, says that his company doesn’t have any relationship with the union, and that a date for a meeting to discuss a possible contract has not been set.
“I haven’t received any formal request for any meeting related to a contract with the union,” Crow says. “I’m sure we will do that at some point in the future when it’s appropriate.”
Local 1212 is ready to have that meeting now.
“The union has reached out to them numerous times and they’ve told us that they are not ready to meet yet,” Butler says. “We’re willing to meet with them at any time.”
While some members of Local 1212 have been rehired by TeamPeople to work at the UN at less pay and fewer benefits, there are grumblings that the company has a history of hiring veteran workers in key positions to help train staff, only to cut them loose in favor of younger applicants willing to work for less, once that goal has been achieved.
“I’m not aware of anybody making any charges or claims like that,” Crow says. “I have no comment. I don’t know what the old system was. I don’t have any information about that, that has been provided to me by anyone. I only know that I bid on a contract by the UN and I won that contract.”
So far, Roth has had two interviews with TeamPeople, but he’s ambivalent about his future at 1 United Nations Plaza.
“I don’t know if I’d want to work for them,” Roth says. “I’ve heard about the poor conditions. Do I want to start all over again from the very beginning? It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”