Union authorizes strike if contract reopened


It was a chilly day on the steps of the Bronx Supreme Court last week. But that didn’t stop more than a hundred unionized doormen, handymen and supers from showing up, demanding what they say would be a fair contract.

But the truth of the matter is, these union workers will be the first to say they shouldn’t even be here. Members of 32BJ SEIU, who maintain 430 residential buildings across the Bronx, say they’re only threatening to strike because the Bronx Realty Advisory Board said it wanted to reopens the contract both sides had already settled last year.

The realty board told the union it planned to reopen negotiations and terminate the collective bargaining agreement as early as this weekend. This spawned a wave of rallies and marches in protest from members who argued their standards and benefits would be lowered, including in places like Skyview Riverdale, as well as residential buildings at West 235th Street and Independence Avenue.

Tony Ahmeti and Angel Ortega both took part in the rally — Ahmeeti a resident manager at 5800 Arlington Ave., while Ortega is the super at Briar Oaks on the Henry Hudson Parkway.

“We’re trying to just put the message out and let them know that we’re here, we’re serious, we’re going to strike if they don’t withdraw the opener,” said Ortega, a member of the bargaining committee. “And that everybody’s united, we don’t want this. There’s no reason for this.”

Elpidio Molina, another building super, said he was preparing for the worst.

“We already had a negotiation last year,” he said. “:We shook hands. Everything was supposedly all right. Now they want to go back and renegotiate, and you know they’re not trying to negotiate to make it better.”

Union members already started meeting with tenants, as well as handed out pamphlets and stickers. They’ve also sought support from elected officials, such as Bronx borough president Vanessa Gibson, who led members in chants at the steps.

“We want to fight for a fair contract,” she said. “32BJ is at the heart and soul of this great borough and this city. You have always been on the frontlines every day, but especially during Covid-19.

“During the pandemic when many people were not out doing their jobs, it was 32BJ that was out there.”

Manny Pastreich, the president of SEIU Local 32BJ, said members need every single penny to make ends meet and take care of their families.

“We’re going to fight to keep the fair wages that we won,” he said. “We’re going to fight to keep the health insurance that we won. So this is a step in the process.

“We’re sort of retaking the same kind of strike vote that we took last year, making it clear to the building owners if they do reopen this agreement, if they do try and take away what we’ve achieved, we’re ready to strike, and we’re ready to fight to defend those wages.”

But Billy Schur, the president of the Bronx Realty Advisory Board, says the union is not considering the whole picture.

“Last night’s vote by 32BJ fails to address the fundamental fact that rising expenses in the real estate industry, coupled with the devastating effects of the 2019 Housing Stability Tenant Protection Act have created an unsustainable downward spiral for Bronx property owners,” he said, in a statement. “Building service workers along with residents of the Bronx must join with property owners to call for action and the pursuit of alternatives that will protect housing affordability while allowing for the survival of Bronx buildings.”

Schur said the combination of “draconian regulations” as well as a complete collapse of the Bronx housing courts, have created an environment where expenses have surpassed revenue, and where most Bronx rental properties are headed toward financial collapse.

“We hope the union will work alongside property owners instead of encouraging grandstanding as the Bronx begins to burn,” Schur said.

That sentiment was not shared by the borough president, however, who said there is currently an assault on unions across the country.

“This work is about the next generation that comes behind us,” Gibson said.

“We have to be the leaders, and the role models, and step up. When folks don’t respect us, we have to demand respect. We have to make sure that our working environments are safe and dignified and respectful of who we are.”

Councilman Eric Dinowitz wasn’t at the rally, but released a statement afterward supporting the union.

“The very fact that unionized Bronx residential workers had to rally once again, a year after the (realty board) promised a four-year contract, speaks volumes on how they are viewed by the real estate industry,” Dinowitz said. “Building service workers are fundamental to Bronx housing. To deny the workers’ rights, and to deflect blame by calling their rally ‘grandstanding,’ is an egregious act of contempt and disregard.”

The four-year contract previously negotiated with the realty board was described as winning annual wage increases averaging 3 percent, maintaining benefits, and securing pensions.

The union says if there is no contract in place by April 30, there could be a strike.

Bronx Supreme Court Unionized workers 32BJ SEIU Bronx Realty Advisory Board Contract renegotiation Strike threats Elected officials Housing affordability Property owners Regulatory challenges