Purple-Shirt Politics


In a climate where organized labor is seen to have lost its luster, SEIU Local 32b-J hails the successful passage of its first piece of major legislation as an assertion of the political efficacy of its membership. The city council’s veto-proof November 7 vote in favor of the displaced building service worker protection act marks yet another significant step in what appears to be the union’s rise from the ashes of scandal. Last week, the legislation, Introductory 239-A, was signed into law by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The law requires owners, managers, and contractors of newly acquired commercial properties of 100,000 square feet or more, and residential properties of 50 units or more, to retain the current union and non-union workers for a 90-day grace period. A building’s workforce can no longer be summarily dismissed without warning. City-owned or -leased buildings are exempted.

Lawmakers credit the union with producing the legislation and organizing a campaign to urge the real estate industry, the City Council, and the mayor’s office to support the bill. “We were down at City Hall every single day, lobbying these people. They got tired of seeing our purple T-shirts,” says John Hamill, a spokesperson for 32B-J. “The purpose of a union is to care for the workers they represent, and that’s what 32B-J did,” says Councilmember Robert Jackson, a prime sponsor of the bill. “They organized a campaign to ensure that their workers will be guaranteed leeway of 90 days to be seen at work to determine if they can do the job and for their union to negotiate on their behalf.”

“What’s important about it politically is this union is the biggest union in New York City that is not a municipal union,” says Hamill. “We’ve got 70,000 members, and they’ve never backed a piece of legislation before. They had a history of not being politically involved; now they are very involved. It establishes that we are a force to be reckoned with in city politics.”

Union membership enthusiastically supports the legislation. Richard Giaimis, 57, a shop steward at an Upper West Side high-rise, applauds the union leadership for taking 32B-J in a proactive direction. “There’s people that break their chops on these jobs, hard workers like me,” says Giaimis. “I’m here 12 years, never took a day off sick, and we should be protected.”

Since the scandalous dismissal three years ago of the union’s former leader Gus Bevona, amid accusations of power abuses and gross mismanagement of funds, the union has engaged in activities that allow its power to be felt in more positive ways in the political arena.

However, the recovering union has had a quite a bumpy ride in local politics. Last year, during the primaries, the union threw its full support behind mayoral candidate Mark Green, while many municipal unions favored Fernando Ferrer. Although there have been charges by union dissidents of members being forced to volunteer for the campaign and the executive board supporting Green without the general approval of the rank and file, during the election, 32B-J diligently mobilized its membership for Green despite the controversy over allegedly racist campaign tactics. This year, the union was a stalwart supporter of trounced Democratic gubernatorial candidate Carl McCall. But backing 27 winning City Council members may have already helped in passing 239-A.

According to Hector Figueroa, secretary-treasurer and manager of the union’s political department, the membership mobilized after years of horror stories such as workers given five minutes’ notice to empty their lockers after working for decades or coming to work and finding their belongings packed in shopping bags. “We in New York identified the same problem we identified everywhere in the country, ” says Figueroa, “that building service workers, because they are [often employed] by contractors, can lose their job when a new contractor is hired in the building through no fault of their own. We were trying to address that instability. It at least allows somebody three months to prepare for the possibility of losing their job without having to do it in a five-minute conversation with a new manager or a new owner.”

In addition to worker stability, in these times of safety consciousness, the law has practical application in terms of security concerns. “This is good for the security of everybody,” says Councilmember James Sanders, another prime sponsor. “These [workers] know the tenants. They know when something is amiss. They know if something looks wrong.” Giaimis agrees. “We take an interest in people here,” says Giaimis. “Who would know better if someone was trying to harm them?”

Sanders also sees 239-A serving as a model for future legislation in which the interests of labor and business do not clash. Figueroa also sees the implications the law has for other areas of industry. “While we were not necessarily thinking of extending this initial legislation to those workers,” says Figueroa, “we clearly hope that it may serve as a model of what we can do in other industries to help people have greater job stability.”

In the interim, 32B-J has set its sights on other political objectives, such as immigration reform, supporting bills to expand foreign-language services, fighting service cuts that affect the membership, and better working conditions for building security personnel. As Hamill puts it: “Some unions are political on Election Day. We’re political every day.”