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In N.Y., This Home Strike Averted

The Nation

A tentative pact keeps doormen, other workers on the job. A walkout would have left 1 million apartment dwellers fending for themselves.

April 23, 2003|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Eunice Anderson, who lives on the first floor of an apartment house on Manhattan's Upper East Side, had made her plans in the event of a threatened strike. She was going to volunteer for several hours in the lobby, helping a specially hired guard screen visitors and take messages.

But, she confessed, she didn't know how to run the telephone switchboard linking the lobby with apartments in the building. And early today it was apparent that she would not have to do so.

Bargaining between building owners and Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union -- which represents 28,000 apartment house workers -- ended in a tentative settlement after hours of talks at a Manhattan hotel, negotiators said.

The three-year tentative contract includes a wage increase of 2.72% in the first year, 2.80% in the second year and 2.87% in the third year, officials from both sides said.

"We've been able to get to a point where we feel we have a fair and equitable increase each year of the agreement," said union president Mike Fishman.

"I'm feeling relief that the matter is settled and everybody will be at work in the morning," said Jim Berg, president of the Realty Advisory Board, which represents the owners.

The negotiators had agreed to "stop the clock" Tuesday night and continue negotiating past the midnight strike deadline.

Anderson, an actress who appeared in the movie "A League of Their Own," was not alone in her planning for the threatened walkout. More than 1 million New York City apartment dwellers were facing the prospect of collecting their own garbage, helping sort the mail and scrambling for taxis if a strike by doormen and other service workers had taken place.

In anticipation of a walkout, residents were issued special identification cards, not only for themselves but also for their housekeepers and guests. Tenants were asked to volunteer in shifts to help maintain vital services.

The current starting salary for doormen and porters is $27,482. After 30 months, salaries jump to about $34,000. The union members also receive tips -- especially at Christmas. But many have complained that uncertainty after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 1991 and Wall Street's woes have cut the amounts in holiday envelopes.

Veteran labor negotiators observed that offers have been made at the eleventh hour to settle past contracts, as was the case this time. The strike, which was to begin with the shift change at 6 a.m., would have affected 3,000 buildings -- including co-ops, condominiums and rentals.

The last strike by doormen was a dozen years ago, and it underlined how central they are to many New Yorkers' lives.

"The last time, I volunteered for a lot -- and did a lot. I swept the sidewalk," Anderson said.

Some residents of this city's exclusive co-ops -- where apartments can cost millions of dollars and applicants must be accepted by board members known to frown upon lavish lifestyles as well as lack of financial liquidity -- even brought food to the pickets and gave them umbrellas when it rained. And they reassured the strikers that they would be welcomed back when their contract was settled.

It is not unusual for doormen to serve for decades in the same buildings. They have witnessed divorces, have seen tots grow up and go to college. They have discreetly listened to problems and given advice.

Many doormen do more than help parents with packages. They remember the names of children and greet them with high fives.

One doorman at an Upper East Side Manhattan apartment house regularly rode the elevator during his lunch hour and shed tears with and comforted an elderly woman he had known for decades who was dying of cancer.

The woman confessed to a relative that dying was a lonely process, and while most of her neighbors had almost forgotten her, the doorman remained her true friend.

She remembered him in her will.

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