A labor-city so big they had to name it twice

With the city’s office-building market booming year after year, the janitors, doormen and elevator operators who keep those buildings running want their share.

The union representing 26,000 workers at 1,000 New York City office buildings says these workers may strike on New Year’s Day if the sizable wage increases they want in a new contract are denied.

Negotiations between the two sides have grown more tense, with the union saying that building owners can easily afford to pay significant raises because rents are soaring, while industry officials say it would be foolhardy to grant large raises when the country’s economy seems so shaky.

The union, Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, has inserted a big question mark into the bargaining by announcing that it will not tell management negotiators how large a raise it wants until Dec. 27, five days before the contract deadline.

“Clearly, money is the issue,” said Mike Fishman, the union’s president. “We believe the industry is in good shape and has had an incredible three years, while working people are being squeezed out of New York. We need to make sure that our people earn enough money to make it possible to live in the city.”

Union officials repeatedly cite one fact: Average asking rents for office space in New York have soared 47 percent a square foot over the past three years.

For their part, real estate officials repeatedly cite a very different fact: The city’s janitors, doormen and other building service workers are the highest paid such workers in the country. They average $40,500 a year in wages and $55,000 a year when the value of health and pension benefits is included.

“The union’s perspective is that the New York real estate market has done well for the last several years, and they want a piece of the pie,” said Paul Salvatore, general counsel to the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations, which negotiates on behalf of the city’s building owners and managers. “Our response is: ‘You have received very fair wages over time. You have consistently beat the cost of living. You have a generous benefits package, and you’re not our partners in the buildings.’”

Mr. Salvatore then cited Wall Street’s troubles, the subprime mortgage crisis and the country’s economic jitters. “We have to do what’s fiscally responsible for the industry, which could be facing a very stormy, choppy period,” he said.

Local 32BJ is planning a rally tomorrow afternoon on Avenue of the Americas between 42nd and 49th Streets, where several thousand union members are expected to vote to authorize a strike.

Union and management are already making plans for a possible walkout. Last Saturday, Mr. Fishman met with strike captains from each of the 1,000 buildings to plan how to mobilize the workers in the event of a strike.

Last Wednesday the Realty Advisory Board sent managers of 1,000 office buildings a detailed manual with advice on how to handle a strike. The manual tells managers, for instance, that they must be sure to pick up the slack if there is a strike, making sure that bathrooms are cleaned, trash baskets emptied and snow removed from sidewalks after a storm.

“They did a good job running the buildings during the last strike,” Mr. Salvatore said.

In 1996, the janitors and other office-building workers staged a one-month strike that caused tenants to grumble about picket lines outside and delays in shoveling snow.

Local 32BJ wants a sizable wage increase in this round of bargaining because in the contract reached three years ago for the office-building workers the union agreed to increases averaging 1.7 percent a year, considerably less than the inflation rate. The union accepted lesser raises because the industry agreed to make an emergency $175 million infusion to keep the union’s health plan solvent.

“We tell them that a 1 percent increase in our compensation will cost them only about 2 cents a square foot,” Mr. Fishman said. “That’s hardly anything compared with the increases they’ve received of more than $20 a square foot in rent since 2004.”

James F. Berg, president of the Realty Advisory Board, said the two sides had agreed to seek a contract of four years, rather than the traditional three years.

“Their demand is for a fair and reasonable wage increase, and, oddly enough, that’s what we want to do,” he said. “The negotiation is determining what that is.”

Officials in the New York City talks said the negotiations would most likely get in the way of their plans to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

“Ultimately this will come down to money, and it will come down to money at the last hour,” Mr. Berg said.


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