Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ is a coalition of 70,000 doormen, superintendents, concierges, porters, cleaning personnel and maintenance workers in New York City and its surroundings. Founded in 1934, the union is as diverse as the city it serves, representing workers from 60 countries speaking 25 different languages. Many of those workers serve the city’s co-op and condo community, working to keep residential buildings running smoothly and comfortably for their occupants.
The View from Inside SEIU
The 70,000 members of the union are divided into 13 districts, according to geography and job type. Districts in Manhattan include Downtown, Garment/Midtown South, Upper East Side and Upper West Side. Queens, Brooklyn, Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut and New Jersey have separate districts, and there are also divisions for window cleaners and theater and stadium workers. Among the districts are 1,300 shop stewards, who liaise between the executive board and the rest of the organization.
The union’s joint executive board comprises at-large officers, at-large board members, district officers, and district members. Union auditors and committee members are selected at large, but do not serve on the executive board.
The six executive leaders of SEIU-32BJ bring a combined 111 years of union experience to the table. Union President Mike Fishman walked his first picket line at the age of eight. He has expanded SEIU’s membership in the city and beyond and lead negotiations for a favorable new contract for union members last April.
Purpose and Duty
In its own words, the union’s mission is "to improve the lives of working people and their families and to lead the way to a more just and humane society."
To that end, SEIU-32BJ is involved in field services, contracts, grievances, education, community affairs, research, and legal aid. Its executives meet with city leaders and endorse candidates. The union’s choice to replace Mayor Giuliani? Democrat Mark Green.
And, of course, SEIU-32BJ is intimately involved in organizing. The temptation for building owners to hire non-union workers is great, given the disparity in wages ($6 per hour instead of $16 per hour) and benefits. SEIU-32BJ seeks to protect the rights of workers in every building–especially non-union ones–and encourage them to join the union. Among the most popular targets for unionization: upscale residential buildings (like condos and co-ops), and commercial and residential buildings in New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut.
This past May, SEIU-32BJ reached an agreement with the Colin Cares Janitorial Company to recognize the union and provide higher wages and benefits. Two months later, the union reached an agreement with 23 janitorial service companies in Hudson County, New Jersey, which will double the hourly wage. In August, the 200 workers who clean PATH train stations won a contract from TUCS Cleaning Service in Orange, New Jersey, that raised their hourly wage by $3.
The September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center affected millions of people around the world. Local 32BJ was no exception.
More than 1,200 union members were employed at the WTC as cleaners, porters, window cleaners, security guards, food service workers and tour guides. SEIU estimates that 350 union members were working in the buildings the morning of the attack; 27 remain unaccounted for. The devastation downtown prevented some 2,000 union workers from returning to their jobs.
The union stood by its members. Fishman sent a letter to the full union membership to assure them of Local 32BJ’s support during the crisis. He and the other members of the executive board met with representatives of the real estate industry–as well as other employers–to assure continued employment and benefits for 32BJ members who were injured or displaced.
In the wake of the WTC horror, Local 32BJ members wore purple ribbons to commemorate the tragedy. The union encouraged its members to give blood, and a relief fund was established to help union members and their families directly affected by the attack.
In addition to dealing with the aftermath of September 11, Local 32BJ will continue to push its "New Strength and Unity Plan." This calls for more action to win higher wages and better benefits, organize non-union contractors and owners in the suburban tri-state area to build strength for bargaining, and get more involved in the political scene.
As Fishman says, "Our members come from nearly every part of the world and speak 25 different languages, yet when we stand together as one union, we have the power to do great things for ourselves, our families and our communities."
The Cooperator spoke with Bill Meyerson, communications director for SEIU Local 32BJ:
In your own words, state the goal of the SEIU Local 32BJ.
Our members come from 60 different countries and speak 25 different languages, but are united in a single fight for the American Dream for New York’s working families.
What is the American Dream?
I’d say earning a living wage, so workers can raise a family in the city at a decent standard of living, to provide for healthcare, to be able to have some security where you work, and some rights on the job.
How did the SEIU Local 32BJ start?
SEIU Local 32BJ was founded in 1934 in New York City. The event that gave birth to the union was a general strike of building service workers in the garment district that drew the attention of Mayor LaGuardia, which prompted building owners to recognize the union.
What is the biggest accomplishment of the SEIU Local 32BJ in the last few years?
Probably the members’ election of a new leadership that successfully led negotiations for our residential members for the best contract ever–and the rebuilding of the Local into an activist, progressive, member-driven union.
The World Trade Center tragedy deeply affected the union–you lost 24 members in the attack and are helping 2,000 others displaced by the attacks. What has the Local done about the situation?
In a groundbreaking agreement with employers, we reached an agreement whereby displaced workers will be placed on a preferential hiring list that in six months will likely ensure that all members will have jobs without a loss of pay or benefits. Benefits have been extended for six months, and supplemental employment, in addition to regular unemployment, will allow members to bring home almost what they did before. And we raised $1.5 million in a relief fund for families of folks who were lost.
One last question: why, in your opinion, are unions important?
Unions are important because working people do not have much power in dealing with powerful employers who basically have the right to determine, at least in the short term, the future of a worker’s life. Only by joining together do they have the strength to deal with employers and achieve the American Dream.
Mr. Olear is a freelance writer and novelist living in Astoria, Queens.