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Doormen's Union Marks Year Anniversary of Strike at Midtown East High-Rise

By Mary Johnson | June 8, 2012 10:10am
Sammy Morales, at left, with his 9-year-old son, Sammy Jr., during the protest on Thursday, June 7, 2012. Morales has been out of work for a year because of the strike at 350 E. 52nd St. in Midtown East.
Sammy Morales, at left, with his 9-year-old son, Sammy Jr., during the protest on Thursday, June 7, 2012. Morales has been out of work for a year because of the strike at 350 E. 52nd St. in Midtown East.
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DNAinfo/Mary Johnson

MIDTOWN EAST — Dozens of members of the doormen’s union marked the one-year anniversary of a strike at an upscale Midtown East high-rise on Thursday with perhaps the largest and loudest protest of the past 12 turbulent months.

In front of the building at 350 E. 52nd St., members of 32BJ vowed to escalate their efforts in urging the landlord, William Koeppel, to come to an agreement, promising to bring protests and demonstrations to Koeppel’s properties in Rye, N.Y., and in Florida in the coming weeks.

“We are going to follow you,” said Hector Figueroa, 32BJ’s secretary and treasurer, in reference to Koeppel. “We are taking this fight everywhere you are and everywhere you do business.”

Union workers carried signs, air horns and microphones, chanting in the streets as they were joined by Assemblyman Dan Quart and City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, who both pledged their support for the cause.

Ahmet Ulkugil, 36 and a former employee at the building, said the strike has left him without medical insurance for the past year, forcing to pay out of pocket for whatever his two children, ages 12 and 13, might need.

“It’s been really tough,” said Ulkugil, who lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. “We’re hoping that this will push him to sit down with us so we can get our jobs back, and our dignity back.”

Sammy Morales, who said he worked at the building for 12 years before the strike began this past year, brought his 9-year-old son to the stage to share the pains his family has suffered.                                                              

“[William Koeppel] doesn’t know what we’re going through,” said Morales' son, Sammy Jr., fighting back tears as he spoke. “And when my dad and the people working here get their jobs back, [Koeppel’s] going to be poor.”

The building, situated between First and Second avenues, has been the subject of heated controversy since the strike began this past year, when Koeppel refused to sign the contract the union agreed to with more than 3,200 other apartment buildings in New York.

Sanitation workers refused to cross the picket line as a show of solidarity, allowing garbage to pile up on the street.

Tenants told stories about the harassment and unsafe conditions that had become commonplace inside the building, where some tenants pay upwards of $4,000 a unit. And they attribute much of those problems to the revolving door of replacement doormen, who they said are often inexperienced and inattentive.

Several elected officials have spoken out in support of the tenants and union members over the past year, and at the protest on Thursday, Assemblyman Dan Quart promised that support would continue.

“We’re all here to say we’re in this together,” Quart told the crowd. “We’re not going to let the Bill Koeppels of this world win these battles.”

Reached by phone after the protest, Koeppel said that he has offered the union members two choices: to either agree to his contract terms or accept a buyout offer that would set the union workers free and allow the building’s current, non-union employees to stay.

And he said he was not intimidated by promises to carry the protests to Rye or Florida.  

“You know something, I dare them to come to Florida or to Rye,” Koeppel said. “They’re not coming.”

“Let them run around and shout; that’s not how you negotiate,” he added. “They can’t just tell us what they want to receive and we’re going to pay it.”

Koeppel said that the replacement staff he’s put in place is working out well, that his costs have gone down and that the majority of the tenants are happy.

“We’re not suffering,” Koeppel explained. “We’re doing business as usual. We have a wonderful new crew of men.”

And although a banner outside the building advertises “luxury apartments available,” Koeppel said the building is fully rented, with a waiting list.

“We receive nothing but compliments about this building, except for this vocal minority,” he added.

Still, an end to this long-running fight does not appear to be close at hand. At the protest, the union members strung a giant yellow balloon bearing the phrase “We are going north, Occupy Rye” from a police barricade.

“When you pick a fight with 32BJ, we’re all in,” said Kyle Bragg, 32BJ’s vice president and director of its residential division. “We’re going to give Koeppel hell until he does the right thing.”