Yesterday evening, despite unseasonable cold and spitting rain, a group of angry maintenance workers from a Bed-Stuy housing project gathered outside the headquarters of Bushburg Properties, their new boss. The small group, joined by members of property services workers union SEIU 32BJ, blew whistles and waved union flags in front of Bushburg’s Borough Park office building, and passed out salmon-pink pamphlets emblazoned with a simple slogan: “Low pay isn’t hip!”
The workers at 1711 Fulton (which is also known as 88 Chauncey Street) learned in March that their wages had been cut by $10 per hour, and their pensions, health care benefits, and accumulated vacation days had been nullified. The news came from Vertices Holding Company, the management company affiliated with Bushburg. Of the nine workers at 1711 Fulton, all have worked at the building for at least 13 years.
“We’ve been going through hell,” Ronnie Coppage said into a bullhorn. Coppage, a porter and steward for 32BJ, has worked at 1711 Fulton for 38 years. He and his coworkers are responsible for maintaining the grounds, waxing and mopping floors and stairways, painting, and plumbing. He believes that Vertices’ new supervisors have been hired to strong-arm them out of their jobs. “They harass us, they curse at us, but we still do our job. Because we want them to know that we’re 32BJ and we don’t give up.”
Efraim Arroyo, a 32BJ steward who works in Clinton Hill, came to the protest in solidarity. “Fellas,” he said, “We’re here to support these guys. We’re all working hard for our families. They deserve salary and benefits like we have.”
The workers have filed an Unfair Labor Practice report with the National Labor Relations Board, citing Vertices' refusal to acknowledge 32BJ, much less bargain a contract. The report also alleges that Vertices has threatened to fire employees because of their union affiliation, and the union sent us a statement detailing Vertices' legal obligation to bargain:
When Vertices Holdings staffed up the building when it took over, more than 50 percent of the employees the company hired came from the work force that was in the building, and represented by 32BJ right before the takeover. Under the National Labor Relations Act, Vertices is obligated to recognize 32BJ as the bargaining representative of the workers and negotiate a new contract for the workers with the union.
1711 Fulton 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, the Real Deal reports that 1711 Fulton’s Mitchell-Lama obligations will be up for renewal later this year. Meaning that Bushburg, which is also known for "hip" luxury buildings like whatever this is, will be under no obligation to maintain affordable units. Bushburg reportedly purchased the complex from E&M Associates for $38 million.
Willie Hill, a supervisor at 1711 Fulton since 1984, has heard whispers in the building of a major luxury renovation. “They tell me, ‘Look, you guys are gonna be gone,’” Hill told us. “In 90 days they’re bringing in a bunch of guys and they’re going to renovate the whole building. They talk about breaking down walls, and how they won’t need our crew after that. They say in five years the building is going to be luxury.”
Ronnie Coppage, a porter at 1711 Fulton Street, addressing the crowd (Emma Whitford/Gothamist)
Reached by phone, Bushburg representative Gabriel Rodriguez confirmed that Bushburg has plans to renovate the building, and that they are in talks with architects. "We know what we're doing here," he said. "We're turning these properties around, and we're deeply invested in them."
A letter which Vertices sent to the workers in March confirms the nullification of their former contract, under Fulton Park Four Associates, as well as the new terms and conditions of their employment. It also informs the workers that after a 90 day trial period, Vertices will be free to lay them off.
Rodriguez said, "With any change in organization, when there's an acquisition or there's a third-party management company taking over a property, there's always going to be bumps and turbulence. In the 90 days that we're allowed to have, we want to do what we can to flush out who's bad and reward who's doing a good job. That's what the 90 days is about." He added, "It doesn't matter that they are union affiliated. That just happens to be the case."
The new terms and conditions of employment are thus: $12/hour, one week of vacation after one full year of employment, no pension, no health insurance, 40 hours of paid sick leave per year, and 9:00 to 6:00 hours, Monday through Friday.
As for vacation, Gary Sparrow, another porter, added, “Some of us have paid vacations [planned]. We looking forward to going in the summer, and we can’t even go. They say we’ve got to be here a year just to get one week. You telling someone that who’s been here for 16 years.”
Sparrow, who recently learned that he has a heart condition, says that he missed work on Monday, for a doctor's appointment. One of his tasks at the apartments is sweeping courtyards. He said, "I hadn’t been here since Friday. That’s three days nobody touched that courtyard. I’m out there sweeping it, and the manager comes out and tells me, 'You movin’ too slow. This courtyard should be clean by 9:00.' I didn’t say anything, because in my head, if you have common sense, how am I going to clean this in one hour?"
Asked about allegations of verbal harassment, Rodriguez said, "We're not looking to be abusive. There are guys who are bad apples, and they aren't doing their job. Even if you've spoken to one of them, you haven't spoken to all of them."
The workers also claim that they haven’t been paid overtime and have been forced to work six days a week, rather than five. They told us that one porter quit soon after the new management came in, leaving them overextended. Lamont Starkey, who’s been a porter at the building for 13 years, told us on Tuesday, “I’ve worked nine days straight. We gotta work that extra day and if we don’t, they threaten us.”
Rodriguez denied the allegations of unpaid overtime, saying, "Have them put it in writing, and shoot me an e-mail, and I'll fix it right away. It's not happening." He also denied mandatory six day weeks, but added, "Are they asked from time to time to work on this day? Yes, there are going to be some cases like that. People are expected now, under this administration, to fulfill their jobs at 100%. People before we're expected to do maybe 60-70% under the old administration."
Even though their jobs are tenuous, the workers say they're determined to keep them—both out of necessity, and in defiance of their new bosses. Sparrow wonders, “What can I do? I still gotta pay my rent. I’ve got a five year old daughter. I can’t just quit this job because it’s stressing me out.” And even though Starkey had to borrow money from his sister last week he reasons, “They want me to quit, and that’s why I haven’t quit yet.”
"Nobody you see here is a quitter," Sparrow added. "We are being mad humble dealing with this." Hill, the longstanding super, agreed. "That’s all you can do: be humble, smile, and keep on.”