It was not until yesterday afternoon that workers at the Printing House, a luxury building at 421 Hudson Street, officially went on strike, walking out over alleged intimidation tactics by the building’s management. But there have been troubling signs at the West Village condo, where apartments fetch between $1.3 million and $7 million, for some time now. (The building’s most expensive home is currently on the market for $14 million.)
To keep the Printing House running in 2012 in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the Villager reported last month, Kevin Samuel, a porter, was required to work without rest for a full week as the neighborhood was besieged by flooding and power outages. Rather than the thousands of dollars in overtime pay he expected in recompense, Mr. Samuel was offered a week’s vacation or $500 flat.
“I took the money because I needed it,” he told the Villager. “But I couldn’t believe that. I didn’t even have a chance to go home to my family during the storm, to see how they were doing. And what did I get for it? Basically nothing.”
Mr. Samuel’s financial hardship stemmed, he said, from shoddy treatment by the building’s management. An employee since 1986, Mr. Samuel makes $16 an hour—toward the high end of compensation among his seven co-workers, the lowest-paid of whom gets just $12 hourly—and has not received a raise in seven years. Making dental and health insurance payments has become difficult, and the Villager characterized Mr. Samuel as “leading the charge toward unionization.”
“We have to protect ourselves,” he said, “and we’re gonna keep fighting until we make this right.”
Soon after the article appeared, Arturo Vergara told the Observer, a member of the building’s management indicated to him that the porter’s days were numbered. “One evening I was at my desk and one of the managers came down,” said Mr. Vergara, a doorman who has worked in the building for more than 12 years. “He was going to give me my monthly Metro Card. And I told him that my colleague [Mr. Samuel] was there, too. And he said, ‘Oh, well, you got to talk to him, because they’re trying to get rid of him.’”
Mr. Vergara believes that the condo board pressured Planned Companies, a building-services organization known for union busting that it had brought on in the face of nascent worker unrest, to fire Mr. Samuel in retaliation for speaking to the press. In reply, Mr. Vergara, Mr. Samuel and their compatriots walked out, and Planned Companies brought in a team to run day-to-day operations.
This afternoon, from a picket line outside 321 Hudson Street, a spokesperson from SEIU, 32BJ—the property services workers union—reached the Observer by phone. A crowd of perhaps 50 had gathered in solidarity with the striking workers, composed of sympathetic Printing House residents and union supporters. “It’s not like there aren’t other luxury buildings that are non-union,” the spokesperson said. “But being threatened because you spoke out in the press? That’s kind of an outlier.”
A number of Printing House residents supportive of the staff’s effort to unionize lay blame for the conflict mostly at the door of the developer Myles Horn, who controls two condo board seats, and who acquired 104 of the building’s 184 units in 2011, initiating a barrage of luxurious combinations and upgrades that would yield 60 much larger apartments.
Having endured the dust and racket of extended renovations, longstanding Printing House owners have nonetheless chafed at the treatment of staff members whom some regard as members of their extended family. “Several months ago, we submitted a petition to the board showing that a majority of us supported a union contract,” Bonnie Simon, who has lived in the building since 1990 told the Observer. No candid response was forthcoming. Frank Nervo, also a longtime resident, added, “A number of us are not happy with a situation where the board is essentially exploiting these people in our name. We can only assume it’s to keep the common charges artificially low.”
It is true that a one-bedroom condo listed at $2.1 million and currently in contract advertises common charges of just $500 a month. But it seems odd that a developer selling multi-million dollar apartments would fret over common charges, and unlikely that wealthy buyers might be swayed by discounts that to them can only appear inconsequential.
“Strange?” Mr. Nervo said. “It’s inane. You want to be able to trust that your grandmother, your dog, your kid is going to be safe here. And instead of taking care of the staff they hire temp workers? Honestly, I’m in support of [the workers] as much for myself as much as I am for them.”
Mr. Vergara, the doorman, who lives with his wife—a nonprofit worker—and two children in Flatbush, sounded equally vexed. “My wife and I, we have to work,” he said. “In New York City, you got to pay rent. You got to pay for your kids to go to daycare. My money goes to daycare and health insurance, my wife’s to rent and other bills. We don’t have money to save.”
Late in the afternoon, Shirley Aldebol, vice president of 32BJ, called the Observer from the picket line. She hoped to help the Printing House workers to organize and to achieve contracts paying roughly $44,000 annually, which is what members of her union can count on getting.
“What these workers want is a drop in the bucket,” she said. “This is a luxury condominium. This is not low-income housing. We’ve got buildings in this city that middle-income people live in, and where workers earn a decent living. But we’ve faced this kind of resistance before. I would say I’m appalled. But surprised? No, I wouldn’t really say surprised.”