In New York City, door attendants are true multihyphenates. A typical day on the job for Jan Edgars – an attendant with 25 years of experience on the Upper East Side – concerns every last detail of daily life: lobby cleanliness, tenants’ health staff, animals, grocery deliveries, outgoing and incoming mail, and all kinds of curveballs.
“I like to say, being a doorman, you’re a part of the furniture,” Edgars told Inequality.org in an interview. “Our job is to blend in and make our tenants’ lives easier, and it takes a certain skill set to accomplish that.”
Others might stereotype this line of work as the “highest-paid unskilled labor in the city,” Edgars continued, “but I can’t tell you the amount of times that people have come in to work the job and can’t last a week because they can’t hack it.”
Edgars serves as a local shop steward for 32BJ-SEIU, a property services workers union active in 12 states. 32BJ authorized a strike that was set to begin on Thursday, April 21st at 12:01 AM. If the union hadn’t reached an agreement with the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations and management by then, 32,000 residential building workers would have paused their work, affecting around 1.5 million New York City residents.
Moments ago, thousands of 32BJ members, overwhelmingly authorized the Bargaining Committee to call a strike to begin after our current residential contract expires on April 20th! NO GIVEBACKS! #BuildingHome #BuildingStrong 💪 pic.twitter.com/hEUjfZnhtO
— 32BJ SEIU /// #UnionStrong 💪💪🏻💪🏽💪🏿 (@32BJSEIU) April 13, 2022
Why were Edgars and his peers on the precipice of strike? While negotiating 32BJ’s new contract, the Realty Advisory Board asserted regressive new proposals: slashing three sick days and vacation days from their current 10-day total and requiring workers to pay into their healthcare premiums for the first time.
To Edgars, that offer suggested that doormen weren’t worth a raise or their current protections, and took “sheer audacity” after the workforce showed up to work and risked their lives throughout the pandemic. “Our union this year is 90 years old, and we are never going to take a step backwards.”
During the pandemic, essential workers continued servicing the city’s richest, insulated neighborhoods, particularly the Upper East Side. As of 2019, the neighborhood’s mean household income was $322,432, the highest in the city, whose overall median is just shy of $70,000.
Today, the median cost of a 1 bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side is $3,795 (up 52% from last year), amounting to well over half of a union door attendant’s monthly income, even including the new contract’s pay increases.
Unions have triumphed throughout New York City this year, boosting what Edgars calls the “labor feeling” – a consoling, energizing solidarity. Earlier in April, Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island unionized for the first time in the company’s history, and in December, Columbia University’s Student Workerssuccessfully concluded a months-long strike by securing neutral arbitration for harassment cases and better dental insurance in their new contract, among other benefits.
32BJ-SEIU built on workers’ momentum with a 10,000 person-strong Park Avenue rally on April 13th, attended by New York’s Governor Kathy Hochul and Senator Chuck Schumer. There, workers authorized the strike, their signs emblazoned with “NO GIVEBACKS.”
By April 19th, the union announced a tentative agreement with the Realty Advisory Board, which includes employee-covered healthcare, a 12.6 percent wage increase over four years – the highest increase in the union’s entire contract history – and a $3,000 bonus to “offset inflation.” 32,000 residential building workers stand to benefit.
Hours before the tentative agreement, Edgars outlined his vision for a successful contract: one that would secure higher wages, better benefits, and stronger pension funding. Even further, he hopes 32BJ-SEIU’s victory will popularize the union mindset, encouraging workers to not just take what is given to them, but evaluate the fairness of the offers they receive and fight collectively for better, equitable treatment.
In the future, he hopes that the Realty Advisory Board could translate their concern for high healthcare costs into joining the union in advocacy for healthcare reform instead of punishing workers with parsimony.
“Every time that we’re out there on a picket line, striking for what is right, we hope that it not only moves the conversation forward, but it moves our society forward. ‘Union’ isn’t just about one person: it’s about all of us.”