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Building, facilities workers mobilize nationwide for better wages, benefits

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Fueled by rising living costs, unionized facilities workers across the U.S. are advocating for improved wages, benefits and fair labor practices. 

In a push for higher compensation and benefit protections, the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which represents over 80,000 building services workers in New York City, cast their ballots in favor of a strike for 20,000 city commercial building workers late last year. The workers then held rallies across the city last December. 

The strike was averted after the city’s building service workers reached a tentative agreement with the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations Dec. 28 which includes a four-year progressive wage increase, a 10% pension benefit raise and healthcare benefits with no premium sharing. 

If the strike had occurred, it would have potentially affected the operations of 1,300 buildings in the city, including iconic landmarks like the Empire State Building and the Museum of Modern Art.

“A voice on the job — through a union — to continue to address areas of concern is key to ensuring that the people who power the industry are valued and heard,” Manny Pastreich, president of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, said in an interview. In February, 99.5% of the bargaining committee’s members voted to ratify the new contract with RAB. 

Since then, union activity in the building services sector has continued to heat up. Below is a list of labor union rallies or strikes seen in the last few months.

Hotel workers rally amid labor dispute

Thousands of hotel workers across the U.S. staged protests on May 1 amid expectations of a widespread labor dispute at major hotel brands including Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton, with union contracts covering about 40,000 workers expiring or set to expire later this year. Many hotels have scaled back services and staffing since the COVID-19 pandemic, and now workers are calling for hotels to raise wages, reverse staffing cuts that have resulted in “painful working conditions” and agree to protect guest services and amenities, per an April 30 news release from hospitality workers’ union UNITE Here. 

In February, LA Grand Hotel workers in Los Angeles, including room attendants and dishwashers represented by UNITE Here Local 11, picketed for workplace protections, better wages and increased staffing, pleading with the city to boost security in the property. 

While more than 40 hotels in Southern California have contracts or tentative contract agreements with the union local, at least 15 hotels in Southern California have been embroiled in labor disputes since last year, according to UNITE Here Local 11.

Contract victories for Chicago janitors

More than 1,000 downtown and suburban janitors represented by SEIU Local 1, the founding local of the SEIU, rallied in Chicago in March. The workers garnered support from Mayor Brandon Johnson and dozens of Chicago aldermen, ahead of the expiration of contracts with the Building Owners and Management Association of Chicago and janitorial contractors. These janitors service 85% of the city’s commercial office buildings and clean a number of iconic sites, including Willis Tower, Hancock Tower and Merchandise Mart, the union local said in a March 13 news release. 

Following weeks of negotiations, over 8,000 janitors represented by the union local ratified two three-year contracts with BOMA/Chicago that included “strong wage increase and benefits that allow for working families to plan for their future,” SEIU Local 1 said in a recent news release. 

One contract negotiated with the building owner and management association covers 3,000 janitors in downtown Chicago and guarantees annual raises of $1.50 in the first year and $0.75 in the second and third years. Additionally, the contract provides 100% employer-paid healthcare, increased employer contributions to pension plans and additional paid personal and sick days. SEIU 1 also said janitors would make an extra $14,040 with a total wage increase of 15% over the life of the contract.

The second contract, negotiated with janitorial contractors, covers 5,000 janitors in the city’s suburban areas and includes annual wage raises of $1.25 in the first year, $0.75 in the second year and $1.20 in the third year. The contract also increased employer contributions to 401k plans and included fully employer-paid healthcare with no insurance cost increases. Janitors are expected to make an additional $13,416, reflecting a total wage increase of 19%, over the life of the contract, the union local said. 

University of New Haven urged to green-light new contract

Over 300 members of UNITE Here Local 217 held a strike at the University of New Haven in early April, urging university administrators to agree to a new union contract that would raise employee wages, provide employer-paid healthcare benefits and improve working conditions. United Here Local 217 represents over 2,000 facilities and hospitality workers in Connecticut. 

The workers garnered support from state officials like Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, Sen. Martin Looney and Rep. Bill Hefferman before the weeklong strike culminated into an agreement for a new contract. The contract was ratified by 25 union facility workers at UNH and announced by the university and Local 217 last month, West Haven Voice reported

Other members of Local 217 went on strike May 1, seeking to reach a new agreement with hotel Omni in New Haven, Connecticut. “On this May Day workers at the Omni are calling for the hotel industry to ‘Respect Our Work’! We are fighting for a new contract and have the community with us all the way! We were joined by our allies in UNITE HERE Local 33, 34, and 35, New Haven Rising,” Local 217 wrote in a May 1 post on X

Food service workers clash with Aramark

At the end of March, 92% of Aramark workers and members of UNITE Here Philly local 274 voted to authorize a strike against Aramark’s operations at the Wells Fargo Center. UNITE Here Philly local 274 represents around 4,000 private sector hotel and food service workers in stadiums, hotels, universities, cafeterias and airports throughout the Philadelphia region. 

Aramark, which provides facilities management, hospitality management, supply chain services and food services, has contracts with the Wells Fargo Center as well as Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field. All of those contracts were set to expire.  

UNITED Here Local 274 had been negotiating with Aramark for standard minimum wages and health benefits for hundreds of employees. However, after contract negotiations stalled, union members in late April planned a walkout at the Wells Fargo Center during the Philadelphia 76ers game against the New York Knicks, just two weeks after a daylong strike during the Philadelphia 76ers game against the Detroit Pistons at the Wells Fargo Center on April 9.

A resolution passed last month by the Philadelphia City Council to support food service employees in their contract negotiations urged Aramark to “negotiate fair and equitable contracts that provide these workers with a standard minimum wage and healthcare coverage.”

United Here 274 said many of its workers make about $14 to $15 an hour, compared with hourly wages of $20 to $21 for their counterparts in Chicago and Washington, D.C., Audacy reported.

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