Building Cleaner Strike In New York Averted With Four-Year Deal

New York office cleaners and building owners reached a tentative four-year labor agreement late Friday, averting a potential New Year's Day strike.

The agreement, which covers more than 22,000 New York City office cleaners represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, will give the cleaners a nearly 6 percent wage increase over the life of the contract. Each worker will also receive cash bonuses totally $1,100. The contract, which union members must ratify, maintains employer-paid family health care coverage.

"The new contract is not just an important victory for office cleaners and their families, but for our economy and our city," said Hector Figueroa, secretary-treasurer of SEIU Local 32BJ, in a statement. "In these tough times the workers who keep New York City's corporate offices and landmark buildings clean and well maintained have stood up for the good middle class jobs our economy and our city needs."

Building owners had sought to create a two-tier wage system under which new hires would never earn as much as current union members. They also wanted to eliminate a system of automatic employee contributions to the union's political fund. Neither proposal is part of the union's final agreement with building owners, said Kwame Patterson, a spokesman with SEIU Local 32BJ.

Unionized building workers clean and maintain about 1,500 buildings in New York, including landmarks such as Rockefeller Center, the MetLife Building, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station, the Port Authority and the Time Warner Center, along with educational institutions such as New York University and The New School.

New York building cleaners had threatened to establish picket lines in major cities around the country and had collected pledges from unionized cleaners elsewhere and other organized labor not to cross those picket lines. Such tactics would have expanded the effects of a potential strike beyond New York City, left thousands of buildings without needed staff and involved at least 100,000 workers.

"We are pleased to have reached a tentative agreement with the union that protects workers' wages and benefits, and provides crucial cost-savings to building owners, who have been battered in this deep recession," said Howard Rothschild, president of the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations, the group negotiating on behalf of building owners with the union.

In the last three months, Local 32BJ has reached new, multi-year contracts for more than 50,000 workers in Connecticut, New Jersey and Virginia. In 2012, SEIU is set to renegotiate contracts for another 155,000 cleaners across the United States.

With more than 120,000 members, including 70,000 in New York state, SEIU Local 32BJ is the largest property-service workers union in the country and the largest private-sector union in the state.