Roughly 90% of the 150 outsourced janitors who cleaned the New York offices of WeWork, a co-working startup recently valued at $10 billion, were laid off in August amid allegations that the company is anti-union and discriminates against immigrants.
Yesterday, SEIU 32 BJ, the service workers' union that has been helping the cleaners organize since July, announced that it had come to a "shared understanding" with the startup. Moving forward, WeWork will contract out its custodial work to union contractors as needed, and hire from the pool of laid-off workers "whenever possible."
The starting hourly rate for a unionized cleaner in New York is $18 per hour.
Any of the cleaners not re-hired by WeWork will receive a portion of $250,000 set aside for severance, on a sliding scale depending on the amount of time spent on the job before layoffs went into effect at the end of August.
"We are... demonstrating our corporate commitment to doing the 'we' thing by providing generous severance payments to formerly contracted cleaners who were not offered a job with WeWork," said COO Artie Minson in a statement.
The subcontracted janitors who once picked up left-over coffee cups, swept hallways, and cleaned conference rooms for $10/hour learned in July that their employer, Commercial Building Maintenance (CBM), had terminated its contract with WeWork. The contract was set to run out on August 23rd. A month earlier the majority-immigrant and Spanish-speaking workers had begun organizing for higher pay and benefits.
In early August, 75 of the cleaners signed a petition stating their "unconditional application for employment with [WeWork] or any successor cleaning contractor you choose to hire." Adding, "We want to make sure that you or any contractor you hire does not discriminate against us because of union activity."
By the end of the month, only 15 of the cleaners had been rehired by the company, to fill new in-house "member-facing" jobs, paying from $15 an hour and requiring computer skills and the "ability to communicate in English" in addition to cleaning.
"We hired the best candidates, period. Any suggestion that engaging in union activity hurt applicants is patently false," a WeWork spokeswoman said in a statement at the time.
WeWork issued a statement yesterday about its decision to return to subcontracted labor, explaining that, in WeWork locations in New York (and Boston, as well), "core cleaning functions will be performed by outsourced union workers." The 95 "member-facing" jobs will be maintained.
WeWork "Dumbo Heights" opened earlier this month, although the company declined to comment on the status of its hiring. The startup is also hoping to secure a spot as an anchor tenant at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, although the company declined to comment on the status of that project, as well.
Asked yesterday if all of the former WeWork cleaners who are interested can now expect a position at WeWork, 32BJ President Hector Figueroa demurred slightly.
"That's the hope," he told reporters. "If they want to work at WeWork, they are going to be offered the jobs first."