Organizer Keeps City Supervisors Off-Guard

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HPD security guard earns love but some ‘hate’ for his union successes

By Samantha Stewart

At 48 years old, Chaitu Heamenchal is a husband, father and a man with a passion for organizing. In 2001 he began working as a security officer at the office of Housing Preservation and Development on Gold Street. When he started at HPD, the 35 security officers he worked with had no union and very few benefits.

Chaitu Heamenchal, a security guard and 32BJ SEIU organizer at the Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development office in Lower Manhattan. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

“I felt that there were people working there getting nothing for the work that they did. It was too little money for the work. I felt like I wanted to do something, because I don’t like to sit on the side,” he recalled.

In 2006, a union representative for the 32BJ SEIU, the largest property service worker’s union in the country, approached Chaitu. He was asked if he would help the union organize a chapter at city HPD. Without hesitation, Chaitu accepted the challenge.

“I said, ‘Look, I’ll take it over from here. From today I will move this forward. You just tell me how I can get involved in this,’” said Chaitu.

Chaitu immediately began approaching his colleagues, urging them to mobilize and unite behind the union. Some colleagues were at first skeptical that a union would benefit them. Others were concerned about employer backlash. Still, Chaitu pressed forward.

His efforts paid off in 2008, when a new contract was signed and the security officers of HPD officially became members of the 32BJ union. Along with unionization came increased worker protections, a pay raise, health benefits, holiday pay and vacation time.

“As far as the union, he’s a life saver,” said Jon Koleszko, an HPD security officer. “He was standing out in the freezing cold handing out flyers. He was going to meetings secretly so that he wouldn’t get in trouble with his employers. He put in a lot of his personal time to make sure that all his co-workers would be taken care of and luckily we did get taken care of. Now we’ve got a union backing us up.”

Chaitu credits much of his persistence as an organizer to his father. As a young man growing up in Guyana, Chaitu was one of 14 siblings. He watched as his father worked hard to support his family. When his father wasn’t working, he was organizing his local Hindi community and teaching on the side.

“I grew up an organizer. My father was a churchman. He helped organize people to go to church. I get that from my father, to organize and to help people out,” said Chaitu. “He would be happy about my work with the union. He’d know that I was doing things to help people out. Trying to uplift people from where they are. To get them where they are supposed to be. So I think he’d be happy about it.”

His colleagues are happy about his efforts too, although his employers are not at all thrilled. “There’s really no fair way to describe Chaitu,” said Jon Koleszko, an HPD security officer. “He’s one of the people that we love and others hate. He’s effective at his job. He doesn’t take short cuts. He doesn’t allow his co-workers or subordinates to be mistreated or abused, even by his superiors. He’s just all around the type of person you want to be working with.”

When Chaitu isn’t working, he enjoys spending time with his wife Vimla and his two daughters Kavita and Vanita. He’s been known to play the harmonica and the Hindu drums on occasion, much to the dismay of his daughters. “They don’t like it,” laughed Chaitu. “But I’ve got excellent kids.”

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