“We Risk Our Lives Every Day”: Building Service Workers Strike

“We Risk Our Lives Every Day”: Building Service Workers Strike

Workers at 75 Wall Street in New York are demanding management return to the bargaining table.

(Courtesy of SEIU 32BJ)

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This article is part of Belabored Stories, a series by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen featuring short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at belabored@dissentmagazine.org. 

Many of the wealthy residents at 75 Wall Street, a luxury condo building in Manhattan, left New York City at the beginning of the pandemic. But the building service workers who provide many of the amenities those residents pay a premium for had no such option. They continued to show up to work day after day, even as the building management refused to meet with them to bargain the union contract they voted for some three and a half years ago. So now those workers are on strike. 

Ron Crowley, the freight elevator operator, has been there eight years. One of the main reasons he voted to join SEIU 32BJ was that management kept changing policies on vacation days and paid time off. The workers appealed to the National Labor Relations Board over these policies, and got them overturned. But the company continues to say that the workers cannot use their paid time off to take a single day—if they want to take a day, they must take a week, so they face the choice of either having to use up a week of time, (the maximum amount of paid time off they can accrue is ten days) or work through an illness or family problem. 

Since the pandemic, those issues have only gotten worse, and now there’s the question of protective equipment. “We went maybe three, three and a half weeks where we had no masks at all,” Crowley said. “We had a small amount of gloves and we had no disinfectant whatsoever. In the meantime, some of the residents of the building were giving us masks, gloves, and disinfectant.” 

When they do get protective equipment, he said, it goes to the management office—but the property manager hasn’t been in the building and the resident manager is only there briefly to do payroll. “Sometimes when he leaves, the PPE is in his office,” Crowley said. “Nobody has the key. So, most of us went out and bought our own masks. We bought our own shields. We bought our own gloves. We’ve got to come in, we risk our lives every day. It is unbelievable.”

Louis Rivera is the overnight concierge at the building, and has been there for ten years. “It is a great building. The residents are great,” he said. But the workers have a sense that they are not treated with respect for the amount of effort they’ve put in. “Everybody wants to be at the same level with respect and courtesy. Some people don’t get that. A lot of us are tired of it. Especially the older gentlemen who are closer to retirement—they deserve better.”

“We put up with everything else for such a long time,” Crowley said, but finally they decided to strike. “We didn’t want to do it in this time, but we’ve all got to come to work, we’ve got to ride the trains, ride the buses, and they’re not doing the right thing for us.” Rivera too described the decision to strike as “nervously made because a lot of us have never done that before and we were always afraid of retaliation.” But their understanding of protections for actions taken over unfair labor practices helped them decide, he said. “If the building management had really cared for us the way we thought we deserved to be rewarded, they would have come and negotiated with us regardless and our property manager hasn’t even been in in nine weeks. So who’s to know when a conversation regarding our future or our benefits or anything continues if he’s not around?”

We never had a staff meeting [about] how to properly handle everything accordingly,” Rivera added. “Everything was on the fly through emails. We felt that ‘If you’re not around and we’re coming up with our own situation to handle what is going on, we are basically taking charge of ourselves.’ It didn’t sit well with a lot of workers who felt like they deserve more as far as healthcare and being safe, because this affects everyone.” 

Many of the workers have family members—children, grandchildren—and plenty of stress to go around worrying that they might bring the virus home from work. And the residents of the building don’t want the workers on the job without protective equipment, but, Crowley said, “We the workers, the staff, we had to tell the people that are in the building—they see us walking around, throwing out the garbage and they say, ‘Where’s your gloves?’ and we say, ‘We don’t have any.’”

They decided to take the strike vote, he said, after a whole weekend without any protective equipment provided. “When Monday came, we went to see the manager and he was on the phone with others, so we came back later and the door was locked and he was gone again. We had to go buy our own gloves. Again. And trying to find them was not easy.” 

Most of the workers live paycheck to paycheck, he said, and so they didn’t want to lose pay by going on strike. “That is why we’ve never done it before—we didn’t really want to do it, but now we’re at the point with this pandemic going on, it’s just pushed us over the edge.”

To end the strike, they want management to return to the bargaining table and work in good faith toward their first contract. “Anytime we ask management to set up our meetings they say, ‘Okay,’ and they never get done,” Crowley said. A major issue for both Crowley and Rivera is the lack of a pension, which other building service workers in the city have as part of their union contract. 

“A lot of us don’t feel that there is job security,” Rivera said. “At least the union can provide job security. We want the reassurance that some of us who put the time in here—more than we do with our own families—could reap the security of what we’re doing.” 

The missing management during the crisis, Crowley said, has underscored the fact that the workers are the ones who run things. “We do our job like nothing has changed, and without management even being there. We know what’s got to be done and we do it.” 

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.

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