June 24, 2016
Op Ed By Bill Hohlfeld
New York, NY. In many ways, the Upper East Side of Manhattan serves as a metaphor for so much of what has happened all across America. An area where Mom and Pop shops once proliferated has been overrun with chain stores.
The six and eight family buildings which often served as home to several generations, and whose only offered luxury was a sense of community and stability, have given way to taller and more modern structures, whose nature is often more transient and anonymous. And while an argument may be made that those changes were imminent and actually superficial, there is another trend that is far more pernicious. It is the onslaught of the two class society.
The erosion of the middle class that every aspiring politician loves to drone on about endlessly, while doing precious little to actually put a halt to, is very much a reality. As a young boy playing in the vacant lots of what would soon become the foundations of the fortresses lining the neo- feudalistic path we were about to embark upon, I knew there was a difference between me and the children who lived in the pre-war buildings that graced Park and Fifth Avenues. They were wealthy and I was not. But there were two other observations that accompanied that
realization. The first was, that I too could attain all that they had attained, if I would do well in school, work hard and apply myself. Upward mobility was, not a theory for my friends and me; it was a given. The second and more important theme was that I was welcome to participate inMthe process.
My parents, both depression era children, had union jobs and with those jobs came, not a sense of entitlement, but a sense of accomplishment. They were part and parcel of the system, paying their taxes, paying their bills on time, and buying groceries for their children. They defined themselves as “working people” and were not shamed by that definition, for they used the term “middle class” synonymously, and saw no conflict between the two. It was a time when there was a tacit agreement – a social contract of sorts, which implied that when you came to work every day and contributed to the society around you, you may not become wealthy, but you would never need to worry about the basics. Today, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the Yorkville of my youth, (the name change signals the change in attitude) we can watch as that agreement is being broken and the contract is being ruthlessly shredded by Bonjour Capital.
Recently, Bonjour Capital purchased The Hamilton, a luxury residential high rise located at 1735 York Avenue. They paid $150 million for the property. More power to them. No New Yorker in his or her right mind wants to see the real estate industry grind to a screeching halt. It creates too many opportunities. Right? Well, not this time. This time it is destroying the lives of working people and their families who had been clinging to the notion that they too were a segment of that “middle class” that is becoming ever more elusive to so many of us.
Bonjour Capital boasts on its website that its strategy is: “To maximize the opportunity by generating increased cash flows and building equity over the long term.” What it neglects to mention is that “increased cash flow” is flowing straight from the pockets of the building maintenance personnel into the hands of a, (let’s just use the word here, OK?) greedy real estate company. Within days of purchasing the property, Bonjour Capital notified the staff of the Hamilton that their salaries would be cut in half, their medical plan eviscerated, sick days and vacation days chopped up and discarded. These workers, loyal employees all, range in tenure anywhere from 5 to 25 years in length of service. Now, they are being told they must accept lower wages than what will soon be the minimum wage in New York. Not surprisingly, those workers see this new arrangement as totally unacceptable. So, they did what workers normally do if they are lucky enough to be members of a union, they looked to their union for support.
In this case, that union is 32B-J of the SEIU. The union responded immediately, appropriately, and legally. They appeared at the site, arranged for communications about the plight of the building staff, rallied the troops as it were, and engaged the tenants in the process, as so many of them have formed deep and amicable ties with the staff over the course of decades. Bonjour’s response was also immediate, but it was heavy handed and mean spirited. According to the unfair labor practice complaint that the union has filed, management has infringed upon the legal rights of the workers by telling them that they are no longer allowed to discuss their job conditions with either their union reps or the tenants while on company time, and forcing them to remove any indication that they are union members from their person. In other words,
keep your mouths shut and be the good little serfs we have said you must be.
Bonjour also proudly proclaims on its website that it has a “proven track record for creative reinvention.” At best, that claim is laughable. There is nothing creative about enhancing profits by slashing wages. In fact, that is the route taken by the untalented, the uninspired and the
incompetent. It smacks of short term gains and long range disaster as so many of our current economic models do. Neither is there any “reinvention” going on here. For Carnegie, Frick and others of their ilk invented this strategy a long time ago. If Bonjour Capital were truly
committed to excellence as, again they claim on their website, and sought to insure that by “the consistently high level at which our properties operate,” then they would know that those consistently high levels of operation are more easily maintained by workers who feel appreciated, fairly compensated and able to perform their duties without constantly worrying about if there will be enough money to bring a child to the dentist or, for that matter, pay the rent.
There are no excuses for Bonjour’s behavior. With rents of as much as $8,000.00/month, the Hamilton is not “affordable housing” being made inoperable by the high cost of labor. There are no demands for pay hikes on the part of workers. With a total of a dozen workers at the building (it had been 15, but two have already been laid off and a third needed to find something else) there is no indication of a bloated staff. There is only a dedicated, reliable and productive workforce who would like to be left alone to do their jobs and continue to provide service to the tenants they respect and who respect them in return.
This isn’t a “union issue.” It isn’t even a “workers’s issue.” It is just the latest installment in a series of unscrupulous business maneuvers all dressed up as the “American Way.” But it’s not anything of the sort. Think of Bonjour as the Walmart of New York real estate.
We all have a choice to make. We may not all line up perfectly in our political perspectives, nor should we. But, as New Yorkers, and more broadly, as Americans, we can certainly agree to espouse some core principles. One of those principles should be that we reward hard work.
And if we do, then we are called upon to honor those who do that work and not offer them up as human sacrifice on some hideous altar as an act of worship to the rather suspect god of what has incongruously become known as the “free market.”