Labor Is Restless in the Big Apple

By Staff Report

Nov. 19, 2007

Strikes by Broadway workers and TV scriptwriters seemed to be setting the stage for increasingly contentious contract talks in a number of industries. Those affected include the thousands of people who clean Manhattan office buildings and work in office cafeterias, as well as radio news writers and telephone technicians.

Workers are demanding a greater share of the prosperity that many of the city’s employers have enjoyed in recent years. But companies are reluctant to commit to generous long-term contracts just when the economy is slowing down. In some industries in which companies have been struggling, employers are looking for concessions from workers, who are digging in their heels.

“There is anger out there, and it is exacerbated by the opulent lifestyle that everybody sees,” says Richard Boris, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education at Hunter College. “We have now the recipe for very charged collective bargaining across the board.”

Unite Here is waging a campaign in the city and elsewhere in the nation to lift the living standards of cafeteria workers. Food service company Aramark is the target of a strike by about 70 Unite Here Local 100 members who work in Aramark-operated cafeterias in New York Life’s headquarters and at 55 Water Street, the city’s largest office building.

“Workers who have been on the job 13 or 14 years at New York Life are taking home less than $500 a week,” says Matt Furshong, a researcher at the union local. “This is a company that is trying to hold down the wages in the industry, and the workers are trying to raise them up.”

The company’s current offer to the union would lift wages by between 40 cents and 50 cents an hour, which Furshong says is inadequate. “The workers are looking for a dignified wage,” he says.

Aramark officials declined to comment.

Other job actions against Aramark-run cafeterias could follow. Food service workers at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Citigroup, whose contracts have expired, have voted to authorize strikes. Hundreds of workers at JPMorgan Chase, the United Nations and other Manhattan workplaces also face expiring contracts.

Pressure to hold the line

As the economy slows, employers are feeling more pressure to hang tough in contract talks.

“The condition of the economy looks murkier than it did even six months ago,” says James Berg, president of the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations, which is negotiating with 26,000 office cleaners on behalf of 1,000 building owners.

RAB officials note that early talks on a new contract, scheduled to go into effect January 1, have been cordial. However, the group said in a statement last week that building owners should be prepared for a job action.

“The possibility of a strike always exists,” the RAB noted.

Meanwhile, the union points to soaring rents and low vacancy rates in the Manhattan office market, and says its members should benefit from landlords’ growing revenues.

“There is no excuse for holding back on the real wage increases that these hardworking men and women deserve and need to get by in New York,” says Mike Fishman, president of SEIU Local 32BJ, which represents the building cleaners.

For some employees, such as those working in news broadcasting, the struggle is to not lose ground. Local radio has been a weak area for CBS Corp., as it has lost business to Internet companies and other competitors. CBS has pushed for drastic concessions from the Writers Guild of America, including the right to combine the workforces of union and nonunion stations. This could potentially force out union members at some stations.

Over the two and a half years since the last writers contract expired, CBS has stuck to its guns on that and other key issues. In a memo sent to staff last week, CBS notes that its final offer awards 3 percent annual pay increases without retroactivity for employees in TV and network radio, and provides 2 percent to local radio employees “in recognition of more challenging times faced by local radio.”

But demanding lower pay for radio employees unfairly penalizes the guild, says Ann Toback, assistant executive director of WGA East.

The union represents writers only in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, who are “among the most profitable in the CBS universe,” Toback says. The profits they bring into larger stations help prop up weaker CBS properties in smaller markets that are not represented by the guild, she says.

The impasse in negotiations with CBS led the union to authorize a strike vote on November 15. On Monday, November 19, the union announced that 81 percent of the 300 writers who participated gave WGA negotiators the authority to call a strike.

Some companies are taking pains to reach settlements with unions early and avoid strikes. Verizon Communications’ contract with 55,000 East Coast employees, including 10,000 in New York City, doesn’t expire until August. Still, Verizon asked the Communications Workers of America to begin negotiations last week. With working-class resentment high, and memories of a punishing 18-day strike in 2000 still vivid, executives may be right to talk to the union well ahead of time.

This story was filed by Tom Fredrickson of Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail

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