New York, NY – Kyle Bragg, head of the union representing 22,000 commercial cleaners across the city, has only been involved in two strikes over the course of his decades long union career — and he doesn’t expect to be involved in one now.
But that doesn’t mean he and his members aren’t prepared to walk out if their contract with the Realty Advisory Board [RAB] expires December 31, without an agreement — because they’ve actually been “strike ready” since the summer.
Bargaining between 32BJ and RAB officially commenced on Thursday, November 14, and left Bragg mindful of two competing factors that will ultimately guide the course of negotiations.
On the one hand, Bragg concedes that the lucrative building boom RAB members are enjoying, coupled with work 32BJ has traditionally done to forge a mutually beneficial partnership with the organization of building owners — are factors that “all contribute to our ability to get a contract done without a fight.”
“We believe the money is there to have a fair settlement for our members,” Bragg says. “Our members have to progress; they have to have more in their paycheck; they have to continue to have employer-paid healthcare — and they have to continue to have retirement security.”
That said, Bragg has entered into this latest round of RAB bargaining — his first leading the union charge following the shocking death of late 32BJ President Héctor J. Figueroa on July 11 — with his “eyes wide open” and understanding that not everyone in the industry sees the world the way trade unionists and their allies see it.
“There are those who don’t believe that our members should have employer-paid healthcare; that our membership should be responsible for their own retirement care,” says Bragg.
According to Bragg, the union has an established track record of working with the building industry to help contain ever-rising healthcare costs — everything from pressuring Albany to pass beneficial legislation to doing “some things with co-pays that shows this is more of a partnership than some lopsided deal.”
Full-time commercial janitors with 32BJ already carry $100 copays for hospital stays and ER care — and $40 copays to see a specialist — assuming all those medicos are in-network, of course.
“My union health insurance is crucial for me,” says Kristinia Bellamy, a building cleaner and member of the 32BJ bargaining committee. “I am a breast cancer survivor, and I have to take a pill that costs $500 per prescription. If I wasn’t covered, I don’t know how I would afford that, even with a good salary. A lot of us worry about what could happen to us without our union health insurance.”
A month prior to his passing, late 32BJ President Héctor J. Figueroa led a massive demonstration outside Bryant Park and declared, “The building industry is booming in New York City and we have to start telling the building owners and the contractors that we have done the work; we have earned what we deserve; and we are coming for our fair share of the wealth that is here in New York.”
Ena Softly, another member of the 32BJ bargaining committee and an office cleaner at 3 Times Square, issued a statement last week saying, “We take care of these buildings and it makes us very proud. Millions of New Yorkers who work in these office buildings go home to happy families, and we need the same in exchange for taking care of them. We should be able to live in the same city where we work.”
In October, 32BJ office cleaners in Philadelphia secured a new 4-year contract that not only increases pension contributions — but extends those same benefits to new workers.
“They said to us they would not spend any more money into pension benefits and stop defined pension benefits for all new employees,” Bragg says. “They said to us that was their ‘religion.’ At the end of the day, apparently, they changed religions — because we won a 20-percent increase on the pension fund that continues to apply to all new workers in that industry.”
Bragg calls himself a “known entity” within the building industry who is embracing this new opportunity to bring home a fair contract for his New York City members.
“This might be a moment in transition to test our ability to to fight back — I would warn those folks, they would be very much mistaken,” says Bragg. “And those who want to see a fair resolution, they should focus on the people on their side of the table to make sure they act responsibly.”
Both sides are due back at the bargaining table on December 3.