SUBCONTRACTING DISEASE: NEW UNION BATTLEGROUND

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As long as Gus Bevona ran Local 32B-32J, building managers and the cleaning service subcontractors they hired felt free to break contracts, fire workers, and slash wages–they could rest assured that Bevona would do almost nothing.

But Bevona was ousted, and the new leadership has deemed that subcontracting will be the theater for some of their first big battles. The 55,000-member union of doormen, janitors and custodians has lost more than 15,000 members since 1990, mostly due to subcontracting agreements that axe unionized workers.

In the beginning of March, M.S. Management, which runs Herald Square’s Manhattan Mall, brought in the Golden Mark Maintenance Company. The firm promptly reduced wages from $14 an hour to $6, cut healthcare benefits and laid off 40 of the union’s 50 members. The union struck back.

“Within 10 hours, we put 1,000 people here to protest,” said Carlos Guzman, formerly a 32B-32J opposition leader. “This never happened under Bevona. Even in the last strike, which went on for a month, he didn’t organize a demonstration.” A second rally on March 15 brought out more than 600 workers blowing whistles and leafleting passersby. With plenty of street heat, it’s already a much more aggressive campaign than anything Bevona was willing to endorse.

The new tactic is to go after both employer and subcontractor. “We’re bringing unfair labor practices against the Mall,” explained Hector Figueroa, the union’s research director. “They’re the ones who got rid of the previous contractor, and they got rid of them because they paid a union wage.”

The union also plans a street-clogging 5,000-member march on the Port Authority for April 14. In 1996, this quasi-governmental authority contracted its cleaning operations out to Laro Service Systems, which slashed wages and turned those workers it didn’t dismiss outright into casual employees. The union wants the subcontractor to “pay prevailing wages, hire back all replaced striking members of Local 32B-32J…and negotiate a fair and decent contract,” a recent leaflet read.

The Service Employees isn’t alone in the subcontracting fight. Last spring, plucky Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100 won a big fight against Salomon Smith Barney, whose 56 cafeteria workers were getting the runaround from both the Travelers Insurance conglomerate and Philadelphia- based Aramark, the subcontractor and nominal employer.

With that contract almost finalized, the local has organized the 60 cafeteria workers at the Chase Manhattan dining room at Brooklyn’s Metrotech. Their attitude: corporation and subcontractor are equally to blame. “The people we hold responsible for wages and working conditions is the company that brings in the operator, not just the contractor,” explained research director Brooks Bitterman. Their current plan: going after Brooklyn Union Gas, which is freezing out efforts to organize cafeteria workers.