On Monday, three months after eight union maintenance workers at Fulton Park Plaza in Bed-Stuy were unceremoniously fired, half of them accepted an offer to come back to work with their union wages and benefits reinstated.
"It was like a dream," said Willie Hill, who has lived and worked as a maintenance supervisor at Fulton Park since 1984. "The best thing was telling my wife. My relationship was getting rough." In addition to $20,262 in back wages, Hill, as supervisor, will live rent free at Fulton Park with his wife and four children.
"I didn't know what Willie was crying for. I saw water coming down his face, and I'm like, did somebody die?" said Lamont Starkey, who has worked as a porter at the building for 13 years and is expecting $16,586 in back pay. "Then I got the call. It was a huge weight off of my shoulders."
The good news followed a settlement [PDF] negotiated last week by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Soon after their hourly wages were slashed and their benefits nullified in March—and with the help of service workers' union SEIU 32BJ—the workers filed an Unfair Labor Practice Report with the NLRB against the building's new owner, Vertices Holdings LLC, and its contractor, Shinda Management Corporation.
Vertices had allegedly threatened to fire the employees because of their union affiliation. In June, after months of steadily degrading conditions and alleged harassment from new building managers, that threat was acted on.
"They sent us out on the street," Ronnie Coppage, a porter at the building for 38 years, told us at the time. "They didn't send us a letter. They just told us 'We're not satisfied with y'all,' and they told us to get the hell off the property."
Joseph Hoffman, CEO of Vertices and luxury developer Bushburg Properties, bought Fulton Park Plaza for $38 million this March. The complex is part of the Mitchell-Lama subsidy program, under which entire apartment buildings are reserved for low and middle-income families and rented through a lottery system. However, those obligations are set to expire this year, raising concerns among tenants of spiking rents and displacement.
"They talk about breaking down walls," Hill told us in March. "They say in five years the building is going to be luxury.”
— 32BJ SEIU (@32BJ_SEIU) June 4, 2015
Every day from June to September, Hill and his fellow maintenance workers picketed outside of Fulton Park Plaza from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. As trash piles mounted up on sidewalks and along hallways—allegedly the cause of two fires in the first weekend in June—several tenants picketed alongside them. The strike made working on the side nearly impossible, so the men relied on unemployment benefits.
"It was a wake up call," said Starkey, who's married with two sons, ages 8 and 13. "You got to change your whole lifestyle. Kids don't understand nothing, because they're used to living [one way]. Once I paid the cable bill, I was done. I've had rent backed up for three months."
"With four kids and a wife, it's enough to put beans and bread on your table. That's it," said Hill.
In addition to reinstating the workers' jobs and ensuring that Vertices and Shinda recognize the union, NLRB's settlement includes more than $120,000 in back wages stretching back to March, plus interest. It also promises 80% of back wages for 28 temporary, non-union maintenance workers who filled in for the fired crew on a rotating basis between June and September. The terms of the new contract will apply to any new maintenance workers hired at Fulton Park between now and 2018. Pension, health care benefits, and vacation days are included.
"Three months is a lot of time when you're out of work and not sure what the outcome is going to be, but things really moved on this case," said Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for SEIU 32BJ.
Standing outside of the building at 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Starkey explained that he, Hill, and coworkers Gary Sparrow and Luis Perdomo are currently tasked with cleaning the whole building. Of the eight workers fired in June, Coppage is on temporary workman's compensation, and two others—Coppage's nephew Cory and Ray Highsmith—opted for severance packages of about $25,000 each. Another worker, Priest Warren, quit back in the spring.
Before Vertices took over, each shift had been staffed by six workers. According to Starkey, the management has promised to hire two more, but he's skeptical. "I said, 'We need some mop buckets to go mop,'" he recalled. "They say they can't find nothing. We have no supplies."
According to the workers, they've also returned to a backlog of more than 100 building code violations, from water leaks to broken mailboxes. They say that someone has been lighting trash on fire and throwing it into the garbage shoots. On Tuesday alone, Starkey removed three mattresses from hallways. "It's like they didn't do nothing [to clean] since we've been gone," Starkey said.
"We've only got four guys. This is a big building," Hill said. Still, "I wanted to come back. My thing is I do the best I can for eight hours, and that's it."
Starkey agreed. As soon as the back wages come through, he says he's going to take his family to dinner. "I already told my wife that we're going out," he said. "And the next day, we're going to sit down and get at these bills."
Vertices Holdings did not immediately respond to a request for comment.