Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Building Workers' Union Contract Talks At Impasse

BY BILL EGBERT Daily News staff writer

Residents in 500 Bronx buildings could find themselves taking out their own garbage and mopping their halls by the end of this week, as contract talks between owners and building workers head down to the wire.

Nearly 4,000 building workers could walk off the job at midnight Friday, when their current contract expires.

Members of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union voted last week to authorize a strike if the Bronx Realty Advisory Board didn't make a deal by a new contract deadline.

"They're worried," porter German Rochez said of residents in his north Bronx building, "asking who will take out the garbage and things like that.

"I tell them that we need their support for a good contract," said Rochez, 40. "They understand. They have jobs like us and face the same kind of thing."

Bronx building workers have long negotiated a separate contract from workers in the rest of the city, mainly because rents - and landlord income - tend to be lower in the borough, though Bronx property values are starting to catch up.

Workers are seeking a hike in the minimum-wage rate, now $10 an hour, and a pension increase.

The average hourly wage for building workers in other boroughs, according to the union, is $18.69.

The negotiations come at a time when the Bronx real estate market is booming.

According to Borough President Adolfo CarriĆ³n, Bronx property values have jumped 76% in the past four years, rents have increased 17% since 2005 and the Bronx has the lowest vacancy rate in the city.

Local 32BJ Vice President Kyle Bragg said SEIU - which merged three years ago with the union that started the two-tiered wage system - is trying to close that gap, but he acknowledged that will be a long-term project.

For now, he simply hopes to avert a strike with a contract that brings Bronx members a bit closer to parity, but even that modest goal, he predicts, will take hard negotiations down to the wire.

"Things don't look very good," Bragg said. "We're still very far apart."

Bronx Realty Advisory Board president Michael Laub said it's the Bronx and the rest of the city that are far apart.

"The economic ability to pay higher levels of rent is nowhere near that of the other boroughs," Laub said.

He also pointed out that higher property values can mean higher taxes, but not necessarily higher rent. And while land prices have gone up, record-high heating costs are draining landlords' cash flow.

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