OK, so it’s Memorial Day — but here’s a great labor story

OK, so it’s Memorial Day — but here’s a great labor story
Photo by Bess Adler

Two former employees at a luxury rental building on the posh Williamsburg waterfront, say they were fired for trying to organize a union among coworkers to improve their working conditions.

Jose Guzman, a concierge who earned $14 an hour, and Penil Martinez, a handyman who worked $18 an hour, worked at 184 Kent, the former Austin Nichols warehouse, until May 20, when the building’s management laid them off.

Guzman, the head concierge since the building opened in January, regularly worked 10- to 13-hour days without receiving overtime pay. When he got sick, he took the day off, at his own financial expense.

He began inquiring about improving working conditions when he noticed workers being exposed to paint fumes and cement dust from construction work inside the building. None of the workers have health benefits or paid sick leave.

“The reason why I wanted to unionize was I was looking for better conditions and my health was questionable breathing in fumes,” said Guzman. “I have five kids and I’m the breadwinner of the family. I needed to improve my financial status.”

After Guzman spoke with several co-workers and did his own research about how to organize them to ask for better wages and health benefits, a representative from the building’s management company, Roseland Properties, questioned him about his activities — then delivered the news.

“I asked them why I was being fired and they said because I was rallying for the union,” said Guzman.

Martinez also received notice from his employer, Lifestyles Services, that he had been laid off, but he says he hasn’t even been told why he has been fired or received his checks from previous work.

“I haven’t told my son. I don’t know what to do,” said Martinez. “I may need to seek some kind of help. Right now I’m going crazy with this.”

Labor disputes have been rare in Williamsburg over the past five years during the real estate boom. Many of the new developments along the waterfront, including The Edge on N. Fifth Street, use union laborers, as stipulated by the city during its 2005 waterfront rezoning. But 184 Kent is a renovated property, which was exempt from the rezoning agreement.

Still, the building management company, Roseland Properties, likely did not have the legal recourse to terminate the workers’ contracts. Federal law prohibits employers from discharging or disciplining anyone who seeks to be represented by a union.

“If the employees are trying to organize and they are dismissed for that reason, that’s an unfair labor practice,” said Al Blyer, the Brooklyn regional director of the National Labor Relations Board. “The remedy is to offer their jobs back, with some back pay.”

That’s what Guzman and Martinez want — as long as they are unionized. The average salary for a unionized concierge is between $19 and $22 an hour, while a handyman would earn almost $20 an hour, numbers based on last month’s apartment building workers settlement.

The men have contacted the SEIU-32BJ, a service workers union, to handle their labor case. So far, 14 workers have signed cards saying that they want to join a union.

“We hope to get the men working again and get their jobs back,” said Kwame Patterson, a spokesman for SEIU, which has already filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against Roseland Properties, Lifestyles Services, and the building’s developer, JMH Development, for “interrogation, threats and wrongful termination.”

For now, the fired workers handed out fliers outside their former employer’s building last week informing tenants about the firings. On Wednesday afternoon, as tenants were returning from work, some took the flyers, cheering “right on.” Others reacted with surprise, promising to call the building’s developer with complaints.

“We’ve been getting a good response,” said Martinez. “People are calling and e-mailing the management.”

Calls to Roseland Properties were not returned and a spokesman for JMH Development declined to comment.