Our union began with a bang in 1934, when building service workers formed 32-B in April and went on strike in November. In those days, elevator operators were in charge of what some called “vertical transportation.” Manhattan’s skyscrapers were largely inaccessible without the men who made the elevators go. But even by the standards of the Great Depression, building service workers’ wages were low and their treatment was lousy. Workers formed our union for the same reason workers always form unions: because banding together is the only way to make jobs better.
Building the union
Our first victory came within months, when the strike that encompassed about 400 buildings in midtown Manhattan’s garment district ended with workers winning union rights and thousands of new members joining 32-B. In March 1936, workers went on strike again to push for better treatment and pay., Within two years, we had come onto the scene in New York and raised standards in our industry under the leadership of James Bambrick and Thomas Young, our founding president and vice president.
1945 was another big year for our union. Our 6-day strike in September pretty much shut New York City down. Reports are that about 1.5 million fellow New Yorkers would not cross the picket lines, nor would they climb the stairs (office building elevators could not run without an operator). The strike ended with a 10-year peace agreement and an all-important anti-discrimination policy.
Organizing for Strength
Our union has always been about workers coming together to build the collective strength to challenge the status quo and demand that all workers – regardless of race, gender, religion or nationality – are treated with the same respect that every person deserves.
Organizing is 32BJ’s lifeblood. Collective strength comes from growing the collective. In the mid-1980s, the Justice for Janitors campaign got its name in Pittsburgh when our members stood up to Mellon Bank, which claimed not to be responsible when it replaced its union cleaning company with a nonunion company that would not respect our contract and union members’ rights. The Justice for Janitors campaign spread across the country to Los Angeles, Houston, Miami and many other cities. Beginning in Pittsburgh, the campaign developed a successful strategy that targeted cleaning sub-contractors that had been driving down conditions in the office-cleaning industry and wreaking havoc with working people’s lives. The campaign ultimately helped tens of thousands of office cleaners win union representation and establish decent standards in the industry. Today, office cleaners and their allies recognize June 15 as Justice for Janitors Day nationwide. It is a day to celebrate past successes and to renew our commitment to good jobs, yes, but more than that, to justice itself.
In the 2000s, 32BJ organized 13,000 office cleaners in New Jersey and northern Virginia. We created a security division and helped 10,000 security officers from Boston to Washington, D.C. and west to Pittsburgh to join our union. In 2016, our campaign to help airport workers win the fight to join our union and improve conditions on the job had a big lift when 8,000 workers in New York and New Jersey airports won their first contract.
Our organizing model is relevant today in the Fight for $15, which started in New York City with our support as a campaign of fast-food workers to raise standards and win union representation. The Fight for $15 is now a national movement that has spawned a raise in the minimum wage in cities and states across the country, even as workers continue to fight for union representation and the power that comes from having a say on the job.
32BJ members put our organizing approach to building activism, too. Good jobs and a fair shot require constant vigilance. Employers are always trying to cut corners and big money is always trying to push politicians to work for their interests alone. Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” At 32BJ, we make that demand every day.