New York, NY – Dozens of members of 32BJ SEIU, the largest property service workers union in the country, held a demonstration outside of 1180 Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan on Wednesday, March 14. Angered by cuts to the wages and benefits of the security guards in the building, as well as an order by their employer forbidding the workers to publicly discuss the changes, union workers from nearby buildings as well as union leaders and elected officials gathered with signs, handing out flyers to passersby and chanting in defiance.
The employer, Elite Investigations, became the new contractor for security officers after the building was sold in February, taking over from Pritchard, and soon after cut most of the workers’ wages nearly in half. In doing so, making them below industry standards without any advance warning, while also eliminating health benefits. Elite also prohibited public discussion of the changes, violating workers’ rights under federal labor law and prompting 32BJ to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
Councilmembers Keith Powers and Justin Brannan addressed the crowd along with 32BJ Vice President Denis Johnston, who led a chant of “When We Fight, We Win!” and “Shame!”
“We all have a dream for a better life for our families, and [Elite] comes in and takes away the dream,” Johnston said before introducing security guard Samer Katabi as an example. Katabi, who had bought a house for his disabled parents just before the wage cuts were instituted, is now afraid he won’t be able to make the payments.
“I’m the breadwinner,” he said, “I just don’t know what’s going to happen.” Katabi’s salary has gone from $25 an-hour down to just $15. The house is in South Jersey, and his commute alone is $600 a month. Having worked at the building for 10 years, Katabi described the job as having many differing responsibilities, “like a concierge,” dealing with tenants, engineering and management, all access to the building, including for workers coming in and out for maintenance, and ensuring the building is safe for residents and visitors.
Eddie Baker, who has worked in the building for over 13 years, and has held a security guard job for over 35 years, echoed and expanded on the demands of the job. “We are first responders too,” Baker said. “If something happens in the building we are responsible for getting the correct personnel [on the scene].”
Training and licensing are also requirements for the job.
“Every year, we have to go to class; we have to have a license; we get gun training; what to do if someone walks in with a gun. Anyone can come in here off the street.” Baker said he enjoys the work of “helping people,” and “keeping people safe.” Adding, “tenants love to have security that they know and they can trust.” “We deserve respect and to be paid [fair wages],” he said.
Carolina Gonzalez, a spokesperson for the union, said the goal is to get the contractor to abide by the area standards or to have them replaced with a “good contractor that will do so.”