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NYC’s Unionized Building Cleaners Move Closer to Striking

32BJ, the union representing the 20,000 building cleaners, says the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations contract offer is "insulting"

New York’s nearly 20,000 unionized building cleaners are getting closer than ever to walking off the job for the first time since 1996. 

On November 28, 32BJ, the union representing the workers, met for the second time with The Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations (RAB) to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. As the union initially feared, RAB, an association representing commercial property owners, offered minor wage increases but asked that workers contribute to their healthcare premiums, which they currently do not. 

RAB also proposed cutting paid time off, eliminating overtime wages after 8 hours, and the creation of a two-tier workforce that would pay new employees lower wages and reduced benefits.

The proposal is a significant departure from the current agreement, which was negotiated in 2019. Currently, workers receive $29 per hour, health care, and a pension fund. Workers are guaranteed up to 49 paid days off for holidays, vacation, sick, and personal time. They also receive additional benefits, such as job training and legal services, which are fully paid for by the employers.

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Coming out of the negotiations the union publicly described the proposal as “insulting.” 

“Today the RAB made their proposals in bargaining,” siad Manny Pastreich, President of 32BJ. “Unfortunately, these proposals fall short of what our members need and deserve. Rather than proposals that reflect the sacrifice and leadership these essential workers have demonstrated, the RAB instead chose to ask workers to make further sacrifices,”

Still, RAB insists that its current proposal is for the good of the industry. Citing the reduction of office usage, with a 22.7 percent office vacancy rate, RAB is adamant that it needs increased flexibility on the part of the union to stay afloat.   

“Over the past three years, the New York commercial real estate industry has and continues to encounter soaring vacancies, untenable interest rates, declining building valuations, and the resultant economic uncertainty,” said Howard Rothschild, President of RAB in a statement. “The future of both the industry and our workforce is at risk without implementing alterations to enhance flexibility in our CBA and our healthcare coverage.” 

However, 32BJ outright rejected RAB’s offer. According to the union, the industry has already reduced its workforce by 2,000 since the pandemic. As a result, the union calculates that commercial property owners have already reduced labor costs by some $200 million annually. 

“The RAB speaks about the value of their properties in terms of trillions of dollars,” said Pastreich.“Our members are talking about paying for child care. We understand that things have changed, but our members and working New Yorkers have already made sacrifices to account for those changes.”

32BJ’s current labor agreement with RAB is set to expire at midnight on December 31, 2023. No specific wages have been proposed by either side yet but the union’s main objective is to preserve the benefits they already have. 

Without a contract that not only safeguards current worker protections and benefits but also recognizes the essential role cleaning workers played throughout the pandemic, the union intends to strike come the new year.

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