Upscale Buildings Deny Workers a Living Wage

BY SAM SPOKONY
Chelsea Now, April 11, 2014

Hundreds of union workers marched across the High Line alongside non-union workers, elected officials and local advocates on April 10 to call for better wages for the non-union employees of numerous luxury residential buildings in West Chelsea.

Non-union doormen, porters and concierges at ultra-wealthy residences around the High Line make substantially less than their unionized counterparts, and many don’t even get health insurance.

“I work 40 hours a week, sometimes more, but I still can’t afford to live on my own,” said Manuel Matos, 25, who makes $12 per hour with no benefits as a concierge at 540 West 28th Street, which is owned and operated by the Ekstein Development company.

“There are million-dollar apartments in that building, so I know can they afford to pay me enough to live on,” said Matos, who lives in Washington Heights.

Juan Olivo, a doorman at 231 10th Avenue, said he recently got a raise to $17 per hour after six years of work — but he explained that while the building owner, Argo Real Estate, finally gave him health insurance, most of the cost for that insurance began coming out of his own pay, virtually erasing the raise.

“I need a living wage for my family, just so we can try to have a better life and not have to worry about about being able to pay for our groceries,” said Olivo, 42, who lives on the Lower East Side and attended the April 10 rally with his 10-year-old son.

Around 90 percent of non-union workers across other parts of the city — including equally affluent areas like the Upper East Side — receive union-standard wages of $21 per hour (or around $44,000 per year), according to 32BJ SEIU, the building workers union that led the rally.

“Everywhere else, they pay those workers wages that allow for a middle-class life and a future,” said Rob Hill, vice president of 32BJ, “but not here around the High Line, where they’ve decided that they’re too rich to follow the rules of the rest of the city.”

Among the other non-union-staffed buildings targeted by the protest was 525 West 28th Street — also known as the AVA High Line, a rental building owned by AvalonBay Communities.

ELECTEDS EXPRESS SOLIDARITY
Dubbed “Occupy the High Line” by organizers, the protest began at 520 West 23rd Street — also known as the Marias. Developed by the Hudson Companies, the non-unionized 107-unit luxury co-op was also the starting point for an October 31, 2013 Halloween-themed costumed procession that was attended by then-aspiring City Councilmember Corey Johnson and State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried.

Gottfried attended the April 10 action, which made its way onto the High Line, then back down to street level, at 28th Street and 10th Avenue — at which point the crowd (now at over 200) heard from Gottfried, Hill and State Senator Brad Hoylman.

“We have some very wealthy folks living around here,” said Hoylman, “and they don’t want their workers to be paid a living wage? Shame on them!”

Gottfried pointed out that the West Side building in which he lives is actually a union building, staffed by 32BJ workers.

“And if the people in my building can afford to live with the 32 BJ contract and those standard wages, then certainly the people who live in and develop these [High Line] buildings can easily afford to pay those wages,” he said.

REBUILDING OR ‘STRAIGHT UP GENTRIFICATION?’
The protesters were also joined by local residents who called for more affordable housing in West Chelsea, pointing to an overall atmosphere of rapidly rising rents that have forced out both working-class tenants and many small businesses.

“People try to say that this community is rebuilding…but it’s not rebuilding, it’s straight up gentrification,” said Miguel Acevedo, president of the tenant association at Fulton Houses, one of Chelsea’s public housing complexes. “And I’m tired of my residents saying they can’t afford to shop around here anymore, that there are no affordable stores because the mom and pop stores are being forced out.”

Acevedo explained that he hopes to continue teaming up with 32BJ in order to tie the concerns with affordable housing and fair wages together as an issue for both Chelsea and citywide, along with, he hopes, creating more local jobs for his public housing residents.

“We need to take this all over New York, to let everyone know that we were born and raised here, and we’re not going anywhere,” he said. “And if you want to build here, you have to build for the people.”

RESIDENTS CAN AFFORD, SHOULD PAY, UNION WAGES
While pushing for the union-standard wages, Hill also specifically called out the wealthy residents of those buildings — especially the property owners who wield greater influence — for, in his opinion, not caring about the welfare of their less affluent fellow citizens.

“There’s nothing wrong with being rich,” said Hill, “and there are a lot of rich people out there. But most rich people at least know that they got where the got with the help of other people.

“Working-class people built [the High Line], and all these buildings around here are worth what they’re worth because the whole city came together and built the park,” he continued. “And the problem is that the rich people who now live in these buildings have decided that they don’t just need someone to open for them, but they also need to spit on those workers as they walk in, because they won’t give them the same benefits and pay that everyone else in this city is willing to pay.”

The building owners and developers mentioned in this article did not immediately respond to request for comment.