Building Trades

The Fight to Organize 99 Tenth Avenue

above: Local 94 Rep John Kramer and 99 Tenth Avenue Engineer Rashik Barber

by Local 94, IUOE

Local 94 brings a lot to the table: our members have substantial job security, good health and pension benefits, and are backed up by the best training programs in the City. But employers don’t always see it that way.

Take the case of 99 Tenth Avenue, a property on the corner of 17th Street and Tenth in Manhattan, almost touching the new High Line elevated park in the neighborhood of Chelsea. The building is home to government agencies, including the General Services Administration. At 99 Tenth, three men employed as stationary engineers and helpers approached Local 94 early in 2008 with the goal of joining the union. The building’s management, CB Richard Ellis, strongly objected.

CB Richard Ellis, or CBRE, is a Fortune 500 Real Estate firm with 30,000 employees worldwide. It brought its considerable legal and financial resources to block the unionization of 99 Tenth.

Conducting a union organizing drive is harder in the USA than in most other industrial democracies. Here, a majority of members in a shop who wish to join a union must indicate their preference and then petition the National Labor Relations Board for an election. The election is by secret ballot and is supposed to be free of employer interference, but that’s rarely the case. Employers fight most unionization drives with their traditional weapons of firings and intimidation, as well as anti-union propaganda.

At 99 Tenth, early in 2008, the three staff members who maintain the building’s HVAC systems signed union cards, and Local 94 Business Rep John Kramer presented the cards to management. CBRE objected, saying that Rashik Barber, the senior man, was in fact a supervisor and should be considered management, not staff. Kramer filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against CBRE in May of 2008, and our attorneys argued the case against CBRE’s counsel before the NLRB.

We won the case on July 15, and the NLRB ordered an election the following month, on August 1. That election brought Local 94 onto the property and should have ended the struggle. It did not. CBRE wrote up the men on bogus disciplinary charges, and they moved to reduce the pay of the senior man by $1 an hour. Kramer filed additional unfair labor practices seeking reversal of the actions.
In January of 2009, after dragging out negotiations, 99 Tenth finally told Local 94 that they would be represented by the Realty Advisory Board in negotiations. But the talks moved along slowly through the winter and early spring of this year, and CBRE laid off one of the helpers, saying he was not needed.

A settlement came in March, and the men were given their union pay rates as of April 1, 2009. Rashik Barber had his $1 per hour pay cut restored back to the same date. Local 94 found another job for the laid-off helper and obtained a lump sum payment for him as a settlement for the unjustified firing.
The fight to unionize 99 Tenth took a year and a half, and consumed considerable legal and financial resources on both sides. Says John Kramer: “They tortured us. They played the game. But they came around. They know they can’t do this any longer.”

Struggles to unionize shops will be much easier if Congress passes the Employee Free Choice Act, which is currently being debated on capitol hill and is the subject of fierce anti-union campaigns on behalf of many of America’s largest companies. They consider their legal expenses to ward off unions just part of the cost of doing business. In the process, they trample on the rights of workers to unionize and stop thousands from doing so.
EFCA would have allowed Local 94 to unionize 99 Tenth at the first step – right after a majority of employees signed union cards.
As it was, the fight took a lot of time and money and subjected the men, says Kramer, to needless anxiety, as they had to withstand intimidation and anti-union speeches from their bosses. “They were told that they’d be better off without a union, but they did not give in,” he says.

September 1, 2009

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