Multimillion-dollar condos but underpaid building staff
BY SAM SPOKONY | Amid a massive overhaul by an elite developer, the West Village’s Printing House has become one of the most stylish and expensive condo buildings in the city — but behind the scenes, a labor struggle is brewing.
Non-union doormen, porters and maintenance workers at the 421 Hudson St. building — which includes units offered at prices up to $7 million — make as little as $13 per hour, with unaffordable healthcare packages, and are being prevented from unionizing by their wealthy bosses.
“This is a war,” said Kevin Samuel, 58, a porter who has worked at the Printing House since 1986, and is now leading the charge toward unionization. “We have to protect ourselves, and we’re gonna keep fighting until they make this right.”
Samuel makes $16 per hour — more than most of the handful of his fellow workers, due to his long tenure. But he hasn’t gotten a raise in seven years, and he’s forced to hand over nearly $200 out of every biweekly paycheck just to keep his medical and dental healthcare packages.
A union standard contract would bring Samuel and his comrades up to a living wage of $21 per hour — or around $44,000 per year — but they’ve never had a chance to even bargain for that kind of increase.
And back in 2012, Samuel was asked by management to take care of the Printing House after Hurricane Sandy struck and left the neighborhood flooded and without power. The porter said he had to stay on the job nonstop for a full week in order to keep the Hudson St. building functioning.
After it was all over, he didn’t get the thousands of dollars in overtime pay he was expecting. Instead, Samuel’s bosses offered him a choice: a week’s vacation or $500.
“I took the money because I needed it,” he told The Villager. “But I couldn’t believe that. I didn’t even have a chance to go home to my family during the storm, to see how they were doing. And what did I get for it? Basically nothing.”
These are things that new buyers of the Printing House’s magazine-worthy condos may not be aware of. And that’s not surprising, given that Myles Horn, the developer leading the conversions and renovations that have so steeply raised the building’s prices, seems more interested in taking care of business than taking care of the workers, according to supporters of the underpaid employees.
Horn, along with two multibillion-dollar investment firms, purchased 104 of the building’s 184 condo units in 2011, and has since undertaken a massive effort to convert those units into 60 larger, redesigned spaces. Most of the conversions are done, and some of the new units have already sold, with 750-square-foot studios starting at more than $1.5 million, and two-, three- and four-bedroom units climbing up to $7 million.
Last year, Horn and the Printing House condo board — which he now essentially controls — got wind that Samuel and his fellow workers were planning to unionize, according to the workers and some longtime building residents who support them. In an apparent attempt to stifle their push for unionization, the board immediately took the employees off the Printing House payroll, and hired an outside building-service organization, Planned Companies, to manage the workers.
Planned Companies reportedly has a long history of union busting, and has threatened or intimidated workers in other buildings who have supported S.E.I.U. 32BJ — the city’s building workers’ union — according to violations issued by the National Labor Relations Board.
At the Printing House, Planned Companies allegedly targeted Samuel with that kind of intimidation last fall, when the managers gave some of the workers a small raise, but specifically — and publicly, in front of the other employees — snubbed the porter, as well as another long-term employee, by denying them a raise.
“I asked about my raise, and they said, ‘Maybe next year,’ ” said Samuel. “But the thing is, they know that I was the one leading a lot of the discussions about trying to unionize, and I could tell that they were trying to make me mad, trying to divide us and turn us against each other.
“They don’t have any respect for people who’ve been there a long time,” he continued, “and I think they wish I was gone, and they’re trying to make my life miserable, but they can’t do it. I’m still here.”
Since last year’s payroll shift, the workers have gotten a great deal of support from 32BJ, which has helped lead protests outside the Printing House — many featuring “Scabby,” the famed inflatable rat.
“The conditions for workers at this building are unconscionable,” said Héctor Figueroa, president of 32BJ, in a statement e-mailed to The Villager. “Not only are they subjected to safety hazards due to the condo conversions, but in a building filled with the ultra-rich, these workers are struggling to make ends meet. It is buildings like this that contribute to the massive inequality and tale of two cities in New York.”
Alongside the union, state Senator Brad Hoylman also wrote a letter to Horn on March 28, to express worries about the developer’s decision to bring in Planned Companies and apparently prevent unionization.
“The opportunity for workers to organize, free from retaliation or intimidation, is a well-established right in American law,” Hoylman’s letter stated. “I am very concerned that [Planned Companies] is engaging in unfair labor practices and interfering with this right.
“Therefore I urge you and your fellow members of the Printing House Board of Managers to take these allegations extremely seriously and take swift action to remedy the situation on behalf of workers at 421 Hudson Street, including terminating contracts with [Planned Companies],” Hoylman wrote.
That letter has not received a response, according to Hoylman’s office, and the 32BJ-led protests have also been met with silence.
Neither Horn nor Planned Companies responded to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, dozens of longtime Printing House residents — the vast majority of those living there before Horn’s conversions — have also supported the workers, and are still attempting to start a dialogue with their building’s board about letting the workers unionize and receive better wages.
But their efforts to get answers from Horn and the board — including a petition sent directly to the board — have also apparently been ignored.
“I just don’t see what’s wrong with paying our guys fair wages, because it’s the right thing to do,” said Bonnie Simon, who has lived on the sixth floor of the Printing House since 1990. “We want these workers to get a fair shake, because they’re like our extended family.”
Both Simon and Frank Nervo, who has lived on the building’s second floor since 1994, told The Villager they believe Horn is preventing the workers from unionizing in order to help facilitate sales of the newly converted condos. By keeping their staff’s wages low, the developer can also minimize the condos’ common charges — basically, monthly maintenance charges, which pay the workers’ salaries — and potentially advertise those small charges as a benefit of buying a unit in the building.
An unsold one-bedroom condo is currently listed on the Printing House Web site for slightly more than $2.1 million, with common charges prominently displayed at only $570 per month. A much larger three-bedroom unit, selling for nearly $6 million, features common charges of only $1,576 per month.
Simon and Nervo said they’ve tried many times to ask the building’s board about this, but have never received a response.
“It seems to me that there’s no answer from the board because it’s an indefensible position,” said Nervo. “On a dollars and cents basis, it seems entirely indefensible.”
The two residents added that, according to figures they received from 32BJ, putting the Printing House’s workers on union standard wages would only increase common charges about 20 percent. For the $2.1 million condo mentioned above, that would mean a rise of only around $115 per month — an amount unlikely to cause a super-rich buyer to go elsewhere.
“And to keep the common charges that low just to help with sales, and to do it on the backs of working people, is just deplorable,” said Nervo, who added his strong belief that paying the building workers fair wages also benefits the residents.
“We want to have reliable, loyal workers here, because we rely on these folks,” he said. “We trust our families, our pets, our packages to the workers…and when the toilet floods, who do we call?”
Another resident, Melissa Dent, who has lived on the sixth floor of the Printing House since 1993 — and whose husband passed away last year, leaving her on her own at home — expressed similar feelings.
“I wouldn’t be here without these workers,” she told The Villager. “They’re my family, they’re here for me. And it really makes me angry that they’re selling apartments here for millions, but they’re paying these guys horrible wages. I think it sucks.”
She also pointed out that many new residents of the recently converted condos — who often fit the “yuppie” persona, according to Dent and others — simply aren’t aware, or are least not worried, about the conditions faced by their building’s workers.
“The problem is that there are a lot of those people who are just buying units now and moving in, and they think everything’s great,” said Dent. “It seems like they’re more concerned with just enjoying their new apartments.”
Samuel, the porter, has gotten that feeling as well.
He recalled a recent protest in front of the building, with the union’s inflatable rat prominently on display, during which a young woman — one of the Printing House’s new residents — came outside and spoke to him.
“She was mad,” said Samuel. “She told us she didn’t want us to have the rat in front of the building, because she had friends coming over to see her.
“And honestly, we get that,” he continued. “You know, nobody likes the rat. We tell the yuppies that we don’t want to be doing it either. But if they want us to stop, they should call their board members, and tell them to get off their butts, take care of business and let us unionize, and all this would disappear. Everything would be fine.
“The way we see it is, that something’s not right, so we have to protest. I mean, what do you want us to do? You want us to keep getting stepped on until we’re too old to fight back?”