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Cleaning staff in 1,300 New York City buildings could begin strike New Year’s Eve

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The union representing about 20,000 New York City cleaning and custodial workers says it’s ready to go on strike if it can’t secure higher pay and pension improvements by New Year’s Eve.

Manny Pastreich, president of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, said contract negotiators have made little progress since beginning talks with the Reality Board on Labor Relations in November. The union said it represents cleaning staff in more than 1,300 buildings across New York City.

If the negotiators can’t reach an agreement, the union will likely declare a strike on New Year’s Eve, when the current contract expires, union spokesperson Simon David-Cohen said.

The two sides began negotiating Nov. 9, when 32BJ proposed an increase in wages and pension improvements. But the union said in a statement that counteroffers from the realty board included “making members pay for their life-saving health insurance,” “cuts to vacation” and “eliminating overtime wages after eight hours.”

“There’s been basically limited to no progress over the month-and-a-half that we’ve been bargaining. We’re now four days away from expiration,” Pastreich said in between contract negotiation sessions on Wednesday.

Howard Rothschild, president of the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations, said in a statement the group is “prepared to put in the hard work to reach a contract that ensures the survival of industry and safeguards our workforce.” The Realty Board negotiates on behalf of buildings’ owners and operators.

But he stressed the economic difficulties the realty industry experienced in the pandemic, including rising office vacancy rates and declining rents. And he said union members, in their current contract negotiated in 2019, receive “top-of-the-line” benefits that include full family health insurance with no premiums from employees, a defined benefit pension fund, 401(k) contributions and 49 paid days off.

“With office vacancies at historical highs, the realities of the economic situation remain unchanged, the industry is in crisis,” he said.

The cleaning industry has also felt the pandemic’s economic toll. In a statement on Tuesday, the union said the industry eliminated 2,000 cleaner positions over the last few years because of the increase in empty office space throughout the city.

Pastreich said a strike would affect New Yorkers in several ways.

“The buildings won’t be cleaned. Tenants are going to be faced with trash that sits out for days. they’re going to be faced with dirty bathrooms,” he said. “People are going to have to choose between the 20,000 workers, the essential workers who make the city work, and the big building owners who are claiming poverty.”

Leila McLeod, a cleaning worker and elected bargaining committee member, said post-pandemic New York has gotten too expensive. She’s since moved to New Jersey from Brooklyn and works as a cleaner at an office building in Hudson Yards.

“We can’t afford to lose anything that we have. If I lose my health care, if I have to pay [a] premium, how am I going to pay a percent of my rent, how am I gonna buy food? I’m gonna have to choose from one to the other,” McLeod said. “Right now we’re surviving. That’s the word.”

McLeod also said she and other union members are ready to strike, but are also optimistic an agreement will be made after seeing success elsewhere.

Over the last weekend, the 32BJ bargaining committee that represents cleaners in New Jersey, part of Connecticut, Hudson Valley and Long Island reached a tentative agreement with their employers. 32BJ estimates that’s about 10,000 cleaners.

On Dec. 20, 10,000 members rallied on Sixth Avenue and were joined by Mayor Eric Adams and other elected officials.

32BJ and the Realty Board have three more full-day bargaining sessions, including Wednesday’s session, before a potential strike beginning New Year’s Eve.

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