Clean This! An Office Cleaners’ Strike is Just What Occupy Wall Street Needs

Ari Paul Dec 21, 2011

In the post-champagne haze of the first business days of 2012 the white collar workforce of this great city might just find itself in a messy situation.

The 22,000 office cleaners and commercial building workers represented by Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union in New York have authorized a strike if a new deal with the Realty Advisory Board (RAB) isn’t struck by midnight Dec. 31. A strike could directly affect 1,500 commercial office buildings, including Rockefeller Center, the Met Life Building and the Time Warner Center. While the union has a long history of issuing strike threats to the RAB and then reaching a deal at the 11th hour, this time is not an idle threat. The givebacks the landlords have demanded from the workers who clean up after them are simply too egregious for the membership to ignore, according to sources within the union.

To begin with, the RAB, which represents the city’s large building owners, demanded that a lower wage tier be created for new workers, a move that would create hostility between rookies and old-timers, as well as sow the seeds for a new workforce that would be inclined to decertify the union a few years down the road — not to mention the fact that it would make it impossible to live in the city on a building cleaner’s wage.

The top pay rate for this majority immigrant workforce is $47,000 a year, according to the union. Enma Mehmedovic, who cleans the Sony Building in Midtown Manhattan, said in a statement, “$47,000 a year is not a lot of money in New York City … I’m raising my two teenage children by myself. It takes two paychecks just to be able to buy my kids’ clothes and shoes.”

Union President Mike Fishman said in a statement, “These workers live in the city with the highest cost of living in the country, and the real estate market here is the most profitable in the country. Their wages afford them only a lower-middle-class standard of living.”

The second issue is that the RAB refused to allow members’ payments to the union’s political action committee to be deducted automatically from their paychecks, asserting that employers should not have to aid an organization that is actively working against their interests.

As Occupy Wall Street, now homeless after the violent eviction by police in November, searches for a way to move forward, the imagery and timing of this possible work stoppage is just too perfect. For starters, the union said in a statement, “the $20 billion Manhattan commercial real estate industry has just experienced its busiest third quarter in three years — with sales activity reaching $6.3 billion, according to Crain’s.” On top of that, many of the occupants of these buildings are financial houses, corporate law firms and insurance companies. They are buzzing with people in the 1 percent and their apparatchiks.

While the rank and file of Local 32BJ would be marching for their contract demands, they would be emboldened if OWS were on the streets not just picketing, but helping in the union’s disruption of the 1 percent’s work life.

After all, one tactical goal of OWS has been to disrupt the system to the point that it makes the power brokers pay attention. The strike, which would leave toilets and floors sullied for the stock brokers and associate attorneys, would certainly have that effect. So would having hordes of unemployed and under-employed people blocking building entrances and occupying lobbies.

It would also bring the issue of good jobs to the forefront of the national debate about inequality. Far too often we’ve heard taunts such as “Shut up and get a job.” The office cleaners want jobs, ones with good pay that employers can afford but are resisting. The onus will be on the RAB and its supporters to explain why they so steadfastly oppose their workers being allowed to earn an honest living.

Informal talks between OWS supporters and SEIU 32BJ organizers are already under way. More needs to happen, and while OWS supporters might wish for a general strike to accompany this movement, that is far off in the distance, and something like this is far more real — and just as disruptive.

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