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100 WeWork Cleaners Who Tried to Unionize Get Locked Out, Workers Say

By  Gwynne Hogan and Rosa Goldensohn | August 24, 2015 6:35pm 

 The former WeWork employees showed up to work on Monday to find that their IDs no longer let them in the building. 
The former WeWork employees showed up to work on Monday to find that their IDs no longer let them in the building. 
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

CHELSEA — More than 100 WeWork cleaners who tried to unionize in June showed up to work on Monday to find that their building IDs no longer let them in, according to the union that represents them.

Their contract expired on Aug. 23, but even when they left work on Friday it still wasn't clear what their fate would be, said workers — some of whom had been with WeWork for years.

"We're in limbo," said Carlos Angulo, 26, in Spanish, who worked as a cleaner at WeWork for the past two years. "No one was dignified enough to tell us what [was going on]; they never told us anything."

The employees had known for several weeks that their positions were in jeopardy when the company that they worked for suddenly terminated their contract.

WeWork, a co-working space that has 17 sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn, announced it would be rehiring new workers directly in what it called an "exciting transition."

The new flock of hires had to be “entrepreneurial,” "inspired," "authentic" and “grateful," according to a posting. 

The new positions called Community Service Associates (CSAs) and Community Service Leads would be paid $15 and $18 per hour respectively, along with benefits and equity in the company, according to a job description.

The amount is more than the $10 workers were earning but less than what unionized office cleaners — who earn between $17.99 and $23.98 — make, according to a union representative.

The job description required workers to "prepare and maintain" building and floor lobbies, "prepare and lock beer kegerators" and "sanitize fruit water container," among other tasks such as dusting, vacuuming and taking out trash.

New employees also had to speak English, a source of concern and frustration for many of the primarily Spanish-speaking cleaners who were confident that they had been doing their jobs well without knowing much English.

"If I talk to the toilet in English it's not going to answer," Angulo said. "The printer doesn't ask me to talk to him in English, the coffee machine [doesn't either]."

Current cleaners were invited to apply.

And they did. They filled out online applications, with some applying several times. Most didn't hear anything, though a handful had job interviews, they said.

But on Monday when the workers showed up to their respective buildings, only about a dozen of the 129 were allowed to work, according to the union working with them.

The workers announced they wanted to unionize three months ago. 

Several cleaners said they had been tired of earning $10 with no benefits and were frustrated about not being compensated for extra hours they worked.

After the announcement, the cleaning company, Commercial Business Maintenance (CBM)  canceled its contract with WeWork, according to a letter from WeWork to SEIU 32 BJ, the union working with the cleaners.

A spokeswoman at SEIU 32 BJ says the contract cancelation is CBM's attempt to wriggle out of signing a union contract, which would require bumping pay to the union's $17.99 per hour starting rate.

“We think CBM terminated its contract with WeWork because it didn’t want to have a fight with 32BJ,” union spokeswoman Rachel Cohen told DNAinfo. "If WeWork wants to make a commitment to better careers, they should start with the cleaners who are already there."

WeWork denied the union's allegations that the change was a response to the organizing campaign.

"Any suggestion that engaging in union activity hurt applicants is patently false," a spokesman for WeWork said. "WeWork has interviewed or will interview every CBM employee who applies for one of our new jobs. We hired the best candidates, period."

Fifteen original CBM workers had been hired back, according to WeWork. The 129 original positions included some part-timers and so there were only 95 new positions available and the company is still looking to hire 25 more, the spokesman said.

CBM did not respond to a request for comment.

Maria Sdewald, who had worked at WeWork for more than three years, and who had several job interviews with the company after she turned in her online application, was not being able to work on Monday.

"I worked there for a long time," said Sdewald, 47, in Spanish. "I don't know what else to do. I'm still hoping they'll call."