Luxury building workers and doormen at more than 3,000 buildings, from modest rentals to Billionaire’s Row supertalls, on Wednesday evening authorized a strike if they do not reach a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement to succeed one that expires on April 20.

Talks between the workers — negotiating through their union, 32BJ-SEIU — and the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations (RAB), which represents the landlords, are ongoing, with both sides meeting on Tuesday and slated to bargain again on Thursday. 

A major point of contention for workers is a management proposal demanding cuts to the workers’ paid vacation and sick time, as well as proposals for workers to contribute toward their health insurance, which is currently paid for entirely by building and apartment owners.

Felix Figueroa, a concierge at The Hamilton, a Morningside Heights co-op in Manhattan, alleged that the RAB was going to extremes and “not bargaining in good faith.”

“They want to go from A to Z. We don’t think that it’s a good time to be moving backwards,” on health coverage two years into the pandemic, the 54-year-old said. “We should be moving forward.”

After a rally on Park Avenue, workers voted to permit a strike if a deal is not reached by April 20. If negotiations collapse and both sides do not agree to a contract, it would be their first work stoppage since 1991, which lasted 12 days.

The strike would impact more than 550,000 building residents, disrupting package and mail deliveries as well as building security if the more than 30,000 workers withhold their labor.

“On the 21st, there will be a strike if there’s no contract,” said 32BJ-SEIU president Kyle Bragg said in an interview during the Upper East Side rally in support of workers on Wednesday afternoon.

“We remain optimistic that the negotiations are progressing, but there’s a long way for us to go before we get an agreement,” he said. “We haven’t yet discussed economic issues beyond talking about what it takes to sustain our benefits packages, and so we hope to talk more about that tomorrow and then we’ll see where we’re at then.”

‘No, No, No’

The union contract covers superintendents, porters, handymen, concierges and door attendants in properties owned or managed by Related Companies, Allied Partners, Vornado Realty Trust and other firms that negotiate together as the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations, which has properties in every borough except The Bronx.

At the rally stretching along Park Avenue from East 79th Street to about East 86th Street, hundreds of those workers railed against the landlords’ demands, shouting during a call-and-response: “They say givebacks, we say fight back!”

Among those in attendance were a few powerful New York Democrats, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Gov. Kathy Hochul, and Upper West Side Councilmember Shaun Abreu.

32BJ building workers rally on the Upper East Side, April 13, 2022. Credit: Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

Asked about the management proposals, building superintendent José Aponte, who held a sign that read “Strike ready,” said simply, “No, no, no. That’s not good.”

Realty Advisory Board President Howard Rothschild contended in a statement Wednesday afternoon that management’s demands for health insurance givebacks and cuts to paid time off were “reasonable.”

“The RAB has proposed fair and reasonable wage increases, as well as the sharing of healthcare costs through employee contributions to the premiums, of which employees currently pay zero,” the statement read. “Our relationship with the union has resulted in more than 30 years of uninterrupted labor peace and we continue to work towards that same goal this year.”

Pandemic Changed Nature of Job

Ardist Brown, a 61-year-old concierge at 66 Central Park West, noted that building workers had to take on several roles as COVID lockdowns turned residences into all-purpose live, work and play zones, making management’s proposed cutbacks to vacation and sick time sting more.

“I wore many hats during the pandemic: I became the home health aide, I became the dog walker, the package deliverer, I delivered food,” he said. 

Even before the strike authorization vote, the Teamsters — who represent UPS drivers and other trucking and delivery services — vowed to support the doormen.

“The Teamsters stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers at 32BJ and will give the union our full support to win their strike,” said Teamsters Joint Council 16 spokesperson Alex Moore in a statement to THE CITY Wednesday morning.

With market rents soaring, building workers are bargaining for a bigger piece of the pie, seeking increased wages and better benefits. In March, the median Manhattan asking rent reached an all-time high of $3,700 – more than 21% more than a year ago.

Workers are demanding a wage increase “at least” tied to inflation, which in New York City sits at a rate of 5.1%, and no changes to their health care, currently funded entirely by building and apartment owners.

Also front of mind for workers during negotiations are the more than 170 32BJ-SEIU members who died because of the coronavirus, including 40 who worked in residential buildings.

Brown, the 66 Central Park West concierge, got COVID in March 2020. He was back to work three weeks later. He was also around for the last doormen’s strike in 1991.

He had a message for the building owners: “Don’t forget about those who were in the business of saving lives during the pandemic.”