Lincoln Square erupted with shouts and whistles last Wednesday, Dec. 12, when local workers rallied outside 150 Columbus Ave. to protest what they believe are unfair working conditions for employees of the building, also known as 1 Lincoln Square.
“What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!” chanted the workers, banging on scaffolding and clapping along. “People united will never be defeated! People united will never be defeated!”
The rally, staged by Service Employees International Union’s 32BJ chapter, was held to help 1 Lincoln Square’s 18 building workers unionize. According to the workers, their requests to join 32BJ have been shot down by the building’s condo board, which they claim is providing them with benefits and advancement opportunities inferior to what they would get from the union.
“I’m getting older,” said one worker, Terrence McGovern, head concierge who has worked in the building for 16 years. “I’ve got my own family. My kids are growing up. I need to provide.”
According to Joe Eisman, residential organizing coordinator at 32BJ, an employee who has worked in 1 Lincoln Square for as long as McGovern could afford to retire for less than a year with the building’s current benefits package. The building also provides no access to citywide training programs for trades like plumbing and carpentry—courses that cost up to $20,000 if paid for out of pocket—which allow workers to move forward in their careers.
To become part of a union, workers must demonstrate to their employer that a majority wants to join, then the employer must recognize the union and negotiate a contract. Employees at 1 Lincoln Square said that their problem is recognition: The building’s condo board refuses to listen to their requests.
“When I was on the board, it was important for us to make sure that the guys were on par with the union or better than the union,” said Joyce Silver, a longtime resident of the building who served as the board’s president 10 years ago. “That was our mandate—to make sure that the guys were happy.” Silver came out to the protest to tell the workers that she supported them. According to her, their paltry benefits were the result of the current board’s neglect.
Heather Albert, another resident at the rally (and the wife of famous sportscaster Marv Albert), agreed. “They’re cheap,” she said of the board, and called its members “a five-member dictatorship.”
“We’re really never given any information about what’s going on this building,” she added. “They’re saying this is the way we’re doing it and that’s it.”
She assured the workers that the residents were on their side. “You guys have always been here for us,” she said, “and we want to be here for you.”
McGovern and a fellow worker, doorman Nelson Arias, affirmed the workers’ good relationship with the building’s residents, and agreed that their problems seemed to come from the current board.
“If we ever had a problem back then, we always went to the board and they helped us out,”
McGovern said. “But now they’ve become more management focused and now it has totally turned. Before, they’d sit down and talk to you, and it’d be an amicable solution. Now it’s turned into either take it or leave it.”
He noted that the board worried that unionizing would create a wedge between workers and residents, but ironically it was the board itself that kept them apart. “We’re professionals. I’ve been doing this for 16 years. If I become union, it’s not going to stop me from doing my job,” he said. “I know my responsibilities and my duties, and I’ll still go above and beyond the call of duty to help all the residents out.”
The board, via a Cooper Square Realty spokesperson, could not be reached, and did not respond to requests for comments on the rally. Silver and Albert are both running for positions on the board in the next election, which will be held in January.
“This is a West Side moment,” said City Councilmember Gale Brewer, who showed up to support the workers and 32BJ. “People walk down their street and they see big tall buildings and they don’t understand that there are people in them that care deeply about the neighborhood, workers’ rights, not just about themselves.”
For residents to show up to the rally and voice their support, she said, was “very special, very wonderful.”
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