Building workers poised to strike if bargaining sputters


The final outcome of contentious contract negotiations between 3,000 residential workers and the Bronx Realty Advisory Board remains uncertain, although one thing is clear — a strike definitely isn’t out of the question.

But that hasn’t happened. Yet.

The workers —doormen, handymen, porters and superintendents — rallied March 6 at Bronx Borough Hall on the Grand Concourse with their supporters, voting to authorize a strike if negotiations continue to falter ahead of a March 14 contract expiration.

Since February, a bargaining committee comprised of elected leaders from the workers’ union — 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union — has been negotiating with the advisory board, a multi-employer association that serves the real estate industry. The workers are fighting for what they believe is a fair wage increase, fair minimum rates for new hires, and maintaining their health and pension benefits.

“Those are the biggest things, fair wage increase and health care,” superintendent Angel Ortega told The Riverdale Press ahead of the strike vote. “That’s been the case for the last 15 years, and that’s true for everybody throughout the city.”

As the working superintendent at Briar Oaks apartments in Riverdale, Ortega supervises some 15 residential workers tasked with maintaining the Henry Hudson Parkway complex’s 300 units and grounds.

“I would say it’s one of the most important things — to maintain a good life, a good living, and not be worried about insurance and health care,” he said.

But depending on how negotiations pan out, the union’s bargaining committee just might pull the trigger, Amity Paye, spokeswoman for the workers’ union, told The Press ahead of the rally. Meaning the workers — who keep more than 1,000 residential buildings in the borough safe, clean and functioning on a daily basis — all would strike.

The union’s decision to call the strike vote came after negotiations slowed, Paye said.

“The bargaining committee is a bit worried that on things like health insurance and the pension, they’re not going to be able to come to an agreement with (the advisory board) before next week,” she said.

But it would seem the workers made their message rather clear outside Borough Hall last Wednesday night because negotiations actually were “more productive” the following day, Paye said.

Wages seem to be less of a stumbling block than benefits as far as working out a deal, she added.

“There’s sort of an understanding that there will be some wage increases,” Paye said. “But really maintaining the current health insurance and the pension are where there’s some tension.”

The board declined multiple requests for comment.

While workers indeed are on edge over what will happen during bargaining, “We are ready to fight,” said Carescencio Bulnes, a superintendent in Kingsbridge Heights, in a release. And with nearly four decades of bargaining under his belt, he’s confident for what he believes will be an auspicious outcome for him and other workers.

“I haven’t lost once,” Bulnes said, “and I’m not expecting to lose this time.”

Bulnes and fellow superintendents are just waiting for the moment to strike, if it comes down to it, he added. “But we (would) rather win a good contract.”

Elected officials — including Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., city comptroller Scott Stringer and several city council members — have supported the workers in their push to nail down better pay and hold onto their benefits.

Amid what the union describes as the borough’s “thriving” real estate market — with landlords renting to a population that’s grown more than 25 percent over the last quarter century — residential prices passed their pre-recession peak for the first time in summer 2017. Yet building service workers often find themselves just scraping by, battling rising living costs.

Furthermore, despite population increasing over the last few decades, apartment supply has grown by just 5.2 percent, according to a letter elected officials — including U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel and state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi — penned to the advisory board in support of building workers calling for fair wages and maintaining benefits. Meaning “even as new developments continue to open, competition for rental apartments remains fierce.”

The workers’ union and the advisory board return to the bargaining table March 12, just a couple days before their contract is set to expire, Paye said. Whether workers decide to strike is definitely dependent on how the negotiations go.

“The bargaining committee, if they’re feeling like they’re close to reaching a deal, they’re not going to call a strike if they think that things are progressing,” Paye said. “But if they think that it doesn’t look like they will uphold their request to keep the health insurance or the pension, then they could call a strike to send a message that those are really important.”