BY TAMAR ROSENFELD
NEW YORK-After one month on the picket lines, 30,000 members of Service Employees Internationals Union (SEIU) Local 32B-32J who are maintenance workers, janitors, elevator operators, and cleaners in some 1,300 commercial buildings throughout New York City returned to work on Monday, February 5.
Many of the strikers returned on the job confident that their walkout was worthwhile. Despite concessions in the contract union officials negotiated, several SEIU members said they succeeded in holding back the employers effort to roll back starting wages for new hires by nearly 50 percent of pre-strike levels.
Rosalina Rodríguez, a union member since 1973 who is a cleaner on the World Trade Center observation deck, was excited about the results of the strike. "We won," she said in an interview. "All the scabs are gone. The union had to fight for the new people and the old people too."
Rodríguez spoke of the contract provisions for the current workforce. "We get a $15-per-week raise in the first and second years, and $16 per week the third year. They will pay more into our insurance and pension."
"It's not easy to go out on strike," Rodríguez said. "But we are strong. With the union we have respect. The owners have to have more consideration for us because the union is behind us." The cleaner was on the picket line daily, and participated in marches through downtown during the strike.
"We're all happy to be back," said William Bednarski, Jr., a porter on the concourse at World Trade Center. "We won increases in salaries and our pension." Bednarski was on the picket line six days a week. "We organized ourselves," he said describing the almost daily demonstrations in midtown and around the World Trade Center. "It's a pretty good deal," he said of the contract. "We knew it [the starting wage] was going to go down to something."
The three-year contract starts new hires at $470 per week - 80 percent of full scale, which is what new employees got until the end of 1995. Management had demanded a 48 percent cut that would bring the starting wage to $352 per week, down from $572 per week.
Many workers were not satisfied with the institution of two- tier wages for the first time, even though the concession in the contract is about half what the bosses pushed for.
A maintenance worker at New York University who has been in the SEIU local for eight years went to the union headquarters the morning of February 5. "I came down here to find out what the settlement is," he said. "Whether you sugar-coat it or not, if new hires start at 80 percent, that's two tiers. We lost thousands of dollars out on strike to take a two-tier wage?"
Another worker who has 17 years on the job chimed in that many union members were willing to stay out longer. "The two- tier strategy was what the strike was about," he said. "We were getting stronger. On Friday [February 2], the building trades unions honored our picket lines."
The settlement was announced in the union headquarters at a press conference attended by New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani; John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO; as well as the full negotiating teams from both sides and officials from other unions in the city.
"The union's negotiating committee has the power to make an agreement, just as they had full power to call the strike," stated local 32B-32J president Gus Bevona. There were no local-wide membership meetings or votes during the strike. However, Bevona added, "as has become our tradition, we will be conducting an opinion survey of the membership" to get their response to the contract.
New-hires must work two-and-a-half years before their first wage increase, which will bring them up to full scale. The real estate industry originally demanded the lower tier work for six-years before reaching 100 percent pay.
Bevona said he "would never agree to a two-tier system. This is a good progression system, not a two-tier," he argued. "If anything," the union official stated, "we have done too good a job for our members not just in this contract, but in others."
Under the new agreement, new employees must put in three months on the job before receiving medical benefits, and two years before the employers begin paying into their pension and annuity funds.
The contract contained several provisions giving raises to workers already on the job. Current employees will receive a 5 percent increase in medical co-insurance payments immediately and another 5 percent in two years. Pension for retirees will go up from $650 a month to $850 by 1998. Maximum vacation days for workers with 20 years' seniority will increase to 25 days from 20.
Despite the sugarcoating for current employees in order for the bosses to win wage cuts for new hires, "We got what we were big enough to get," said a cleaner at the World Trade Center who did not give his name. Rosalina Rodríguez added, "If we lost this fight, other unions would be in a worse position. I'm 100 pecent union. With it we are strong!"
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