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Just after signing a bill that guarantees some employees of city contract holders a “living wage” last Tuesday, Mayor Bloomberg put his John Hancock on a worker rights bill that relieves what one City Councilmember called the “Dickensonian” predicament of laid-off janitors.

After 28 years of working as a janitor at an office building on East 57th Street, Fadila Mrkulic, 50, was unceremoniously fired the day building management changed hands. Within five minutes of reporting for work — Mrkulic says she was not even permitted to use the bathroom — she was standing outside the building in tears. “Imagine, we were all treated like criminals!” said Mrkulic. “It’s painful to be without a job, but it’s more painful to be stripped of your dignity.”

The new displaced workers law prohibits new building owners from firing building service workers — janitors, doormen, porters and security guards — until 90 days after the property changes hands. “We see this as a first step to creating what could become a series of bills that can help protect an otherwise contingent, very vulnerable work force,” said Hector Figueroa of Service Employees Union 32BJ, which lobbied heavily for the bill.

The bill does not cover city-owned buildings or commercial properties smaller than 100,000 square feet, and many of the privately owned office buildings in the five boroughs are governed by labor contracts that already have this protection. But as the first such bill nationally to extend coverage to residential buildings, it marks a major victory for a union that is trying to position itself as a real player in city politics while struggling to get out of the shadow of its fellow service employees’ union and longtime rival, the powerhouse hospital workers’ Local 1199.

Headed by Dennis Rivera, 1199 has gained tremendous political clout in recent years, culminating in Rivera’s 2001 deal with Governor Pataki for higher health care worker wages, which paid for most of the city’s living wage bill. The smaller, more progressive 32BJ has not been so lucky: The union supported Carl McCall in his unsuccessful bid for governor this fall, and a Manhattan grand jury has been investigating 32BJ for allegedly making improper donations to Mark Green’s ill-fated mayoral campaign.

“In spite of their current troubles, it’s a tremendous victory,” said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “It protects workers, and it also shows that the union has clout.”

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