Hundreds of building workers in private residential buildings in the Bronx and their supporters voted on Monday to authorize a strike if they don’t reach an agreement to maintain their health benefits and boost their wages by the end of next Monday, March 13. 

The workers, represented by powerful labor union 32BJ SEIU, cast their votes as they rallied in front of the courtyard at Bronx Borough Hall on Wednesday evening. The contract negotiations cover 1,404 superintendents, porters, handypersons and door attendants across 433 co-ops, condos and rental apartment buildings represented by the Bronx Realty Advisory Board. 

The negotiations would also impact another 950 workers at 374 buildings covered under a linked  Bronx Master Independent Agreement and an additional 358 members at 87 buildings covered by separate contracts, according to the union.

Union leaders say that the building owners, who are represented in the contract negotiations by the Bronx Realty Advisory Board (BRAB), had launched an “existential attack” by proposing that workers’ health care in a new contract only cover 5-star centers, which provide doctor’s visits with $0 co-pays to 32BJ members—forcing workers to dig into their pockets for visits to specialists or hospitals. The negotiations were first reported on by The Bronx Times

“It’s unacceptable. It’s crazy because imagine myself or one of the members have a heart attack or a stroke that’s something that can’t be taken care of at the five-star center. That’s something you need to go directly to the hospital,” said Marcos Morillo, a 63-year-old superintendent who has worked at a 12-story, 120-unit co-op building in the Pelham Bay neighborhood of The Bronx since 1990. 

“When we’re coming out [of the hospital], that bill is going to be very, very expensive.” 

Simon Davis-Cohen, a spokesperson for 32BJ, said BRAB is also trying to raise the number of hours an employee must work weekly to be in the union to 20, from 16, and to create a separate contract for superintendents that would not grant them overtime, would allow them to be fired without cause, and would “take away superintendents’ right to honor picket lines in the event of a strike.” 

Billy Schur, the president of Bronx Realty Advisory Board that “was founded in the 1940’s to provide full labor representation to owners of Bronx residential buildings whose maintenance employees are members of the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ” according to its website and that currently represents over 600 buildings, said in an email that “we disagree with the characterization of a lack of progress” by the union, which he called “our partners throughout the borough in service of our employees and building residents.”:

Schur also argued that “Bronx property owners have faced unprecedented economic issues, following three years of COVID restrictions and skyrocketing costs” while “State and City lawmakers have only made the situation worse.”

But Shirley Aldebol, a vice president for leadership and staff development at the union, scoffed at the idea that the building owners are struggling with their finances. 

“They’re like ‘We’re broke. We don’t got no money.’ We’re already struggling,” she said at the rally. “We have to deal with high prices. We have to buy groceries. We have to feed our families.” 

‘A Matter of Life or Death’

Neither 32BJ nor BRAB would say what salary numbers they were proposing for the new contract, which the two sides began beginning over in early February in five sessions to date, with three more scheduled for the coming week according to Davis-Cohen. 

Bronx residential workers had been covered by a different union until the early 2000s, and are still paid considerably less than their counterparts in the other four boroughs, according to 32BJ, which said that BRAB porters and door attendants in the Bronx make an average hourly wage of $19.66 compared to a typical wage of $27.13 in the other four boroughs.   

The negotiations also impact 374 buildings and 950 other workers who are covered by a linked “Bronx Master Independent Agreement.” A further 87 buildings and 358 members are covered by separate contracts that are indirectly impacted.

“Obviously, no one wants to go on strike,” 32BJ president Manny Pastreich told THE CITY on Wednesday. “But this is the moment where they need to ensure that they get fair wage increases over the next four years, that they protect their health insurance, protect their retirement.” 

He noted that the union has over 170,000 members citywide, and “all our resources will be there for our members here in the Bronx if they need it.”

Tony Ahmeti, a 16-year veteran handyman working out of Riverdale who supports a daughter with a serious medical condition, said that “for me, the health benefit is a matter of life or death.”

His daughter, Ahmeti said at the rally, “has been having surgeries since the minute she was born—countless surgeries. She requires medication to stay alive. If I didn’t have this insurance, how would I pay for her hospital costs?”