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Unorganized Cleaners, unlikely Venue

Published: June 8, 1997

Publication: The New York Times

By Selwyn Raab

For two years, a union that represents office building porters has waged a high-profile campaign to persuade three banks to employ only union members to clean scores of bank branches in New York City.

But when it comes to hiring employees to clean the union’s own headquarters in Manhattan, union members need not apply.

Anyone who wants to be one of the 70 employees who polish floors, clean bathrooms and collect garbage in the union’s 23-story tower must sign an agreement denying them union protection in grievance disputes over dismissals, wages and working conditions.

The building, at 101 Avenue of the Americas and Grand Street in SoHo, is managed by the 101 Operating Corporation, whose chairman is Gus Bevona, the president and top official of Local 32B-32J of the Service Employees International Union.

Defending the nonunion policy, Joseph Mancini, a spokesman for the union, said that since the local operated the building it could not represent both management and labor, because that would be a conflict of interest. He also said that cleaning employees in the building received the same wage, medical and pension benefits as Local 32 members who worked under union contracts in other office buildings.

But critics assert that the union’s leaders have granted themselves more power over workers in their building than they have extended to other employers.

The union leaders can dismiss or discipline employees without going through a grievance procedure, and they can unilaterally reduce wages and change working conditions.

”This is a contract that every employer would love to have,” said Arthur Z. Schwartz, a lawyer who represents a dissident group in the 65,000-member local.

The insurgents have protested Mr. Bevona’s salary of $412,000 a year, which makes him one of the nation’s highest paid union officials, while most Local 32 members are paid less than $35,000 a year.

They also have questioned as excessive the Bevona administration’s agreement to pay $197 million in rent for the headquarters building for 20 years and the construction of a penthouse apartment in the tower for Mr. Bevona.

”Gus Bevona’s actions reek of hypocrisy when he switches roles from union leader to the other side of the bargaining table,” said James F. McNamara, a director of the Association for Union Democracy, a group that monitors labor conditions.

Carl Biers, the association’s executive director, called upon the local to use a union contactor to clean the building or invite another union to represent the cleaners.

Mr. Bevona declined to be interviewed.

Mr. Mancini said the union knew of no grievance complaints by employees in the building. The union’s 101 Corporation has retained Ronan Associates to manage the building, and that company is responsible for hiring the employees, although they must sign working condition contracts with the 101 Corporation, Mr. Mancini said.

Officials at Ronan Associates did not return telephone messages left at their offices.

Since 1995, Local 32 has conducted an advertising campaign and handed out six million fliers urging Citibank to resume using its members as cleaners. The local recently expanded the union-recognition drive to the Dime Savings and Marine Midland Banks.

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