By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The massive development of downtown Brooklyn was supposed to usher in an era of prosperity for the borough. But with corporate-welfare kingpins like Joshua Muss in charge, the benefits are not exactly trickling down.
At Brooklyn Renaissance Plaza, a 32-story building at 350 Jay Street owned by Muss, a Forest Hills-based developer, some 30 janitors, porters, and cleaners have been on strike since May 16, the third work stoppage in less than a year by the cleaners. Recently, eight of them went on a three-day hunger strike.
The workers, mostly immigrants, are paid as little as $6.50 an hour (well below the industry's prevailing wage of $16 an hour) and receive no health benefits and only a few vacation days. What's more, according to one worker, Muss and his henchmen have tried to bully members into joining a suspect union, United Construction Trade, instead of the union of their choice, Local 32B-32J of the Service Employees International Union.
Next month, the National Labor Relations Board will hold a hearing on the Renaissance Plaza strike. However, earlier this month, Muss's union-busting tactics and ill-treatment of his workers were brought to light at a City Council hearing. Union leaders and workers gave eloquent testimony, emphasizing the need for more government oversight of companies that receive city subsidies.
"They take pictures when we leaflet in front of the building. They threaten to fire us for organizing."
Juana Mejia, a Dominican immigrant and mother of two, gave a hellish account of working at Renaissance Plaza, describing the poor working conditions, the lack of overtime pay, and the company's intimidation tactics. Because Renaissance offers no benefits, she has had to get food stamps and Medicaid, despite working full-time. "This is not just," she said. "Why does Mr. Muss have to cause more expenses to the city after he gets millions in subsidies? Why does he have to sacrifice my kids and me in this time of abundance in this city?"
When Renaissance Plaza opened in 1998, its cleaning work was contracted out to the notorious Golden Mark, a company fiercely opposed to unionization. In fact, Golden Mark recently settled a class-action lawsuit and had to shell out $189,000 to 125 current and former employees. Indeed, the company is currently being prosecuted by the National Labor Relations Board for its treatment of workers. In April, Muss dropped Golden Mark, putting cleaners on the Renaissance Plaza payroll.
Another striker, Aida Lopez, told the City Council that company representatives continue to harass workers who organize with Local 32B-32J, even to the point of saying they will fire her for simply wearing a union T-shirt to work. "They take pictures when we leaflet in front of the building," she said. "They threaten to fire us for organizing."
Muss's case is corporate socialism at its most egregious; not only did Renaissance Plaza receive considerable taxpayer financing (nearly $60 million, according to the SEIU), but it was also built on city property under a 99-year lease. Moreover, the city guaranteed Muss government tenants, thus ensuring more public dollars and little risk. Nearly half of Renaissance Plaza is occupied by the public sector, including the Brooklyn district attorney and the corporation counsel, which is ironic considering recent accusations about Muss's violation of organizing laws. The rent generated by these tenants amounts to $11.5 million annually. Another major tenant in the building, Empire Insurance, has also been a recipient of taxpayer largesse, obtaining millions in city subsidies and government-backed bonds.
No representatives from Muss Development showed up at the hearing (nor did the company return Voice phone calls). Brooklyn congressman Major Owens has led protests outside the building, vowing to "shut down" Renaissance Plaza if Muss does not pay his cleaners a living wage. Owens has hinted that he will organize boycotts of events at the nearby Marriott Hotel (which Muss also owns but is not part of this dispute) if that matter is not resolved.
Letters of protest were sent by most of Brooklyn's elected officials, Public Advocate Mark Green, State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, and many others (although not by Mayor Giuliani). "Please know that I share your concern," Muss replied in a form letter sent to these officials. "We are looking to achieve a fair resolution."
The City Council plans to pass a resolution in the near future calling on Muss to negotiate in "good faith" with the strikers. In addition, City Council member Guillermo Linares will introduce a bill barring subsidies to companies that violate the rights of their workers. In the past the Giuliani administration has resisted any efforts to impose conditions on businesses that receive city financing. So far there has been no word from City Hall on whether the mayor would support such a bill.