32BJ building workers and Realty Advisory Board reach tentative contract agreement, narrowly avoid strike

32BJ narrowly avoids strike - reaches tentative contract with RAB
32BJ building workers and the Realty Advisory
File photo courtesy of 32BJ SEIU

At about 1 a.m. on Thursday morning, the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations and 32BJ SEIU union members — who represent 17,000 of New York City’s commercial building cleaners — reached a tentative contract agreement ahead of the current contract’s Dec. 31 expiration date.

The agreement, which helped 32BJ avert a historic strike which would have affected 1,700 city buildings, including 900 buildings owned by RAB, the organization that represents many of the city’s major commercial building owners, managers and cleaning contractors.

“It is fitting that we are closing out a year marked by worker mobilization with a victory for 20,000 working New Yorkers who form the backbone of this city’s economy and commercial real estate market,” said 32BJ President Manny Pastreich in a statement on Thursday. “The path to this tentative agreement was not easy. 32BJ members mobilized with intention this year and marched, 10,000-strong, up midtown to make crystal clear their priorities. And today we found a common path forward with the RAB that rewards workers appropriately and meets the moment for the New York City commercial real estate industry. We won a strong agreement that moves working New Yorkers forward.”

The union and RAB negotiate for a new collective bargaining agreement every four years. The most recent contract was finalized in 2019 just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw 32BJ workers become an essential backbone in the fight against the spread of the virus.

Before the tentative agreement was reached on Thursday, a strike seemed an almost certain, as the two organizations were at a bargaining stalemate. Union members said the proposed RAB contract would have made union members pay for health insurance premium shares (which had been accommodated in previous contracts), establish a permanent second-tier workforce, cut overtime hours after eight hours, and cut labor protections despite an already diminished 32BJ workforce.

Many 32BJ members viewed the initial proposals as a slight by the RAB, especially after they had been forced to become essential workers during the pandemic — union members said they risked their own health and the health of their loved ones in order to ensure that the buildings they managed were clean and safe.

The new tentative agreement makes more concessions to accommodate union members, while still addressing the pandemic-related financial issues facing the real estate industry. 

“We adapted to the pandemic in the workplace, and over the past year we mobilized with our co-workers, preparing ourselves for a real fight,” said Dulce Martinez, a member of the 32BJ bargaining committee who has worked as a cleaner for 18 years. “We were ready. And we showed that we were ready at our buildings and in the streets, sending a message that any changes to this industry would not be made on the backs of us, the essential workers who show up everyday, regardless of global pandemics or hurricanes. We let that be known. And I’m happy to say we have a tentative agreement that reflects all that we have been through and the hard work we do every single day.”

The agreement reached on Thursday secured the maintenance of 32BJ health insurance benefits with premiums increasing no more than 3% each year, a historic wage increase set to reach an addition of $149 per week by the end of the four year contract, pension improvements, strengthened anti-discrimination protections — especially for pregnant workers — and more.

“We’re proud to come to an agreement that reflects the economic realities that commercial real estate faces by creating the flexibility the industry needs to survive for the long-term,” said RAB President Howard Rothschild. “Thank you to Manny Pastriech and the entire 32BJ team for working with us to find solutions that will benefit our workers and our industry.”

Workers also remarked on the success of the labor movement as a whole, relieved and excited to hear that a strike had been avoided and that their united efforts with their union had secured them the contract they felt they deserved.

“Thinking back to the pandemic, when the subways were empty, when it was scary going to work – many of us, including myself – went to work with preexisting conditions,” said bargaining committee member Ena Softley. “We saw co-workers go home sick, and we never saw them again. These were our friends. We got sick ourselves.  This contract campaign was a big deal for us after all we have been through as a collective. Today we showed that when working people come together, lives and jobs improve.”

The tentative contract will come into full effect once officially ratified by 32BJ members via email.