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Six Fired in Queens After Exercising Their Right to Unionize

October 29, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.— “We made sure this building was kept safe for everyone,“ Osman Ak told the crowd of about 70 people outside the Vernon Tower building in Astoria Oct. 28. “We spent months drenching boxes in Lysol. They threw us out like we were nothing.”

“They definitely fired us because of the union. They don’t want to pay us what we deserve.” — fired property service worker Osman Ak.

Ak, the 37-year-old father of a teenage son, was one of six workers laid off from the building at 11-08 31st Drive, a couple blocks inland from the East River, on October 16—barely six weeks after they had signed their first union contract as members of SEIU 32BJ. He had been working there as a doorman since it opened two years ago.

“They definitely fired us because of the union,“ he told LaborPress before the rally. “They don’t want to pay us what we deserve.”

The owner, Excel Development Group, replaced the six doormen and porters with a superintendent who doesn’t live in the building and a  “virtual doorman camera system,” according to residents and 32BJ. The union is demanding that they be reinstated. It has filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that they were axed in retaliation for their union activity and that Excel did this unilaterally, without any bargaining.

According to a 32BJ spokesperson, a company official told tenants in the building on a video call that the layoffs were made necessary by problems with the union. “It was a very clear unfair labor practice,” she says.

Excel owner Michael Heletz did not respond to questions emailed by LaborPress. Ak said the company told workers it couldn’t afford to keep them on.

He also says that Excel tried to lay workers off several times after the union contract went into effect Sept. 1, and cut doormen’s pay from $17.81 to $15.88 an hour, ostensibly to pay for health-insurance coverage. That coverage was supposed to be included in the contract, according to 32BJ.

The Vernon Tower building in Astoria receives over $5 million a year in 421a property-tax exemptions intended to encourage construction, and is thus required by law to pay the building-service workers prevailing wage.

“What were they asking for?” 32BJ organizer Zamir Khan told the rally. “They were asking for fair health benefits so they could take care of their children, their spouses, and their families.”

The layoffs and pay cut were also illegal, 32BJ says. The building receives over $5 million a year in 421a property-tax exemptions intended to encourage construction, and is thus required by law to pay the building-service workers prevailing wage. It says Excel owes the workers tens of thousands of dollars in back pay.

“What Excel Development is doing is cruel,” said state Senator Michael Gianaris (D-Queens). “There’s no other way to put it.” City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Queens) praised residents for “standing in solidarity with the workers.” Most of the residents have signed a petition urging Excel to reinstate the workers, 32BJ says.

Rents range from $2,000 to $5,000 in the market-rate apartments, but in exchange for the 421a tax breaks, the owner is required to keep all 103 apartments rent-stabilized for 35 years and set aside 20% of them for households with incomes between $30,000 and $60,000 a year, 

The residents are planning to apply for rent reductions from Homes and Community Renewal, the state housing agency, on the grounds that the layoffs reduced services they had been paying for.

“They just told us at the last minute that we were losing all our doormen and porters,” said a tenant who gave her name as Judy. “It came as a shock.”

A woman holding a baby girl says one of the doormen taught the 14-month-old how to wave goodbye.

Last year, tenant Alvarez Symonette told the rally, one of the doormen caught and tackled a burglar who was carrying someone’s TV out of the building.

“Is the virtual doorman going to tackle that person?” he asked. “Is the virtual doorman going to open the door for mothers with baby carriages?”

“No!” shouted a girl about 3 years old.

October 29, 2020

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