The ad on a New York subway shows the smiling face of Anton Rudovic, who works as a doorman at an apartment building on the city's Upper East Side. Rudovic recently made headlines when he helped deliver the baby of one of the building’s residents on the street outside.
“The newest resident in Anton Rudovic’s Upper East Side building just couldn't wait for a cab to take her mother to the hospital to give birth. Luckily, Anton was there to help – right in the middle of the street,” says the ad, part of a campaign mounted by the building workers' union, 32BJ SEIU. "The contract covering Anton and his co-workers expires April 20, 2014. Support Anton and all working people trying to make ends meet and keep New York home."
The "Making NY Home" campaign capitalizes on the city's current political climate, where ordinary working New Yorkers are increasingly taking center stage. Gone is Michael Bloomberg, the super-rich mayor who said it would be a "godsend" if New York "could get every billionaire in the world to move here." In is the populist Bill de Blasio, who won election by lamenting the city's "inequality gap" and hammering away at his "tale of two cities" slogan.
"The ads send two messages," says Hector Figueroa, 32BJ’s president. "One, we are working hard for you to make sure you have what you need to live here. Two, we also want to live in the city where we work."
The building workers represented by 32BJ have the kind of jobs that have become increasingly rare in this country: solid, reliable union positions that allow people without advanced education to make comfortable lives for themselves and their families. The average doorman makes about $44,000, with a benefits package that includes medical and dental coverage with no premiums from the employee; pension and retirement funds; and vacation and sick time.
The problem is, even as they tend to the most city's most affluent and privileged, 32BJ's members still find themselves struggling to maintain a foothold in a city where the cost of living is spiraling out of control.
The pending contract will affect the compensation of 30,000 doormen, porters, superintendents, and others who work in 3,300 of the city's more upscale buildings. Those buildings are home to 2 million New Yorkers, mostly at the high to very high end of the income scale. While obstetric services aren't generally among their expectations of building staff, occupants are accustomed to having their doors opened, their cabs hailed, their packages cared for, and their sidewalks sprayed clean.
The last time the negotiations rolled around, in 2010, things got tense. Despite a friendly history, the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations, which represents the building owners in the contract talks, argued that the economic crisis had yet to pass and that it couldn’t be too generous with salary increases or benefits. It looked, for a few days, as if the workers might go on strike, which they hadn’t done since 1991.
"Doormen Might Soon Force Rich People to Exert Themselves Slightly," read one headline. In the end, workers won a 10 percent raise over four years, and a strike was averted.
This time around, things are going more smoothly. The national economy is recovering, if slowly, and the real estate business in New York is doing especially well. There's a high demand for buildings with exactly the kind of services that 32BJ's workers provide. Signals from both sides point toward an amicable negotiation. "Talks with Doormen Represent Unusual Labor Peace" was the headline on this Crain's story. Howard Rothschild, the Realty Advisory Board president, told Crain's that "we have regular meetings and we work very well together."
This year, says 32BJ's Figueroa, there may also be a better public understanding of just how important a building's workers are. The memory of Superstorm Sandy, which knocked out power in much of Manhattan, is still fresh. "Members were incredibly heroic in protecting buildings that were flooded," he says. And 32BJ’s workers have been busy this snowy winter, keeping sidewalks clear. At most buildings, Figueroa points out, workers are on the job in shifts around the clock, making it even more important for them to be able to live in the city where they work, with access to its 24/7 transportation system.
Figueroa sees 32BJ’s current negotiations as part of a much larger national picture, one in which organized labor has could take a strengthened role. The union is now in 11 states and Washington, D.C., and claims 145,000 members. That's the context in which he says he sees not just this upcoming negotiation, but also his growing union’s involvement with struggles like that of non-unionized workers at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to get better pay and benefits.
"Income inequality is the problem of our time," says Figueroa. "The break with the old labor tradition is that we have to make sure that our fight speaks to this larger issue."