by Brendan O’Connor
Two weeks ago, office cleaners at WeWork locations throughout New York City began protesting unjust working conditions. WeWork is an international co-working startup recently valued at ten billion dollars that is based in New York, where it is, by footprint, reportedly the fastest growing company in the city. The janitorial staff at WeWork’s New York locations are demanding higher wages, benefits, and vacation time; they are also considering joining a union. On Wednesday, they, along with sympathetic union workers from 32BJ (the local chapter of the national Service Employees International Union), and a drum and bugle corps marched from one WeWork location, at 222 Broadway, near Fulton Center, to another, at the Charging Bull, in Bowling Green Park. Speeches were made; the band played; confused tourists looked on.
WeWork cleaners are not employed by the company, but by the Commercial Building Maintenance Corp., which is a non-union shop. They make eleven dollars an hour or less, without benefits; the prevailing wage in New York for union workers is twenty-three dollars an hour, with full benefits. According to 32BJ, ninety percent of commercial office cleaners in New York City — and ninety-eight percent in Manhattan — are unionized. Union members from 32BJ — which claims to be the country’s largest property service workers union, with a hundred and forty-five thousand members, including seventy thousand in New York City — leafleted outside WeWork locations in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Miami, where WeWork just opened. If CBM’s cleaners vote to unionize, they will likely join 32BJ. “Everybody wants to join the union,” Bolivar, a WeWork cleaner, told me.
Bolivar works the night shift at the WeWork space at 120 East 23rd Street. He and two other cleaners have five hours to clean the two kitchens, take out the garbage, mop the hallways, and dry mop the cubicle and office spaces. “We can’t do everything they want us to do,” he said. CBM also expects its employees to cover for absent co-workers whenever and wherever necessary, without paying overtime. “They love to add more work,” he said. For Bolivar, the organization effort is not only about fair compensation, “It’s respect that I would like.” Nobody inside WeWork has said anything to him about the union drive. “It’s business as usual,” Bolivar said.
According to a charge filed by 32BJ with the National Labor Relations Board, a WeWork executive threatened to fire workers who participated in the organizing effort during a meeting with CBM executives held after the cleaners announced their demands. The charge, which can be seen here, claims that WeWork violated the National Labor Relations Act “by threatening the employees of its janitorial contractor that if they unionized, [WeWork] would fire all of them.” WeWork’s only public response thus far has been to deny that the executive threatened to fire anyone. “We absolutely did not and would not threaten the employment of any one who works at one of our locations because of any union activity,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “Moreover, since all of these individuals are employees of our contractor, we do not even have the right to terminate their employment.” (32BJ spokesperson Rachel Cohen told the New York Observer that the executive’s comments were sent to the union in writing.)
Because WeWork does not actually employ the workers who clean its spaces, the company can abdicate responsibility for how much the cleaners that work at WeWork are paid. Bloomberg Businessweek’s Josh Eidelson calls this the “Who’s the Boss?” problem: “The business models of many major U.S. companies depend on workers who are legally employed by someone else. Labor groups argue that such sprawling supply chains make it harder to hold companies accountable for abuse, let alone organize the workers involved.” However, while it is true that WeWork is not the cleaners’ direct employer, they do choose the company that cleans their spaces — and, at nearly two million square feet in New York City alone, this is a sizeable contract. “WeWork is the decision maker,” Cohen, spokesperson for 32BJ, told me. “They’re in control.”
Not only is CBM the contractor in all of WeWork’s New York locations, but, according to Cohen, CBM doesn’t have any other cleaning contracts with commercial office spaces in New York City. If CBM agrees to start paying their cleaners at the union rate, those charges would get passed up to WeWork; essentially, WeWork chooses whether or not to pay the union rate.
CBM does not employ unionized cleaners. However, one CBM cleaner told me that he’d heard the company’s owner also owns another company that does work with unions. There may be something to this: CBM is headquartered at 200 Oak Drive, #201, Syosset, NY; so is a company called Spanier Building Maintenance. It, unlike CBM, does employ unionized workers. 32BJ, meanwhile, says that it will not stand for WeWork pulling their contract with CBM in New York, regardless of whether it switched to a different, union contractor. “We would not accept any agreement that would not include the continued employment of the cleaners that are there now,” Cohen said. Neither CBM nor SBM responded to requests for comment; WeWork declined to comment.
The charge against WeWork, that an executive threatened to fire organizing workers, is currently under investigation by the NLRB; an initial letter informing WeWork of the investigation was sent on June 22nd. Two days after the letter was sent, WeWork announced that it had raised another four hundred million dollars, at a ten-billion-dollar valuation. At Wednesday’s rally in front of 222 Broadway, State Senator Daniel Squadron expressed disappointment that such a highly-valued business would treat its workers so poorly. “We’re very glad that they’re growing — if they understand that they’re responsible for the jobs they create,” Squadron said. “There’s no excuse for a growing business to come to my district — our city — and undersell our workers.” SEIU-32BJ vice president Shirley Aldebol echoed his dismay. “A company with a ten-billion-dollar valuation is denying workers justice,” Aldebol said. “We can’t allow WeWork to bring in contractors that are going to bring standards down,” she continued, referring to CBM. “We are about raising standards, for all workers.”
In one respect, the insidious brilliance of WeWork is the ease with which it capitalizes on the erosion of any meaningful distinction between work and life and how, through the marketing platitudes and hashtag banalities that sell its members — known elsewhere as tenants — on proximity to a culture of entrepreneurship, it further erodes that distinction. Adam Neumann’s vision for WeWork is not just to create a startup incubator disguised as a series of coworking spaces. “We are not competing with other co-working spaces,” he told Bloomberg. “We are competing with offices. And that is a $15 trillion asset class in the U.S.” Apartments too: WeWork is reportedly exploring a concept called WeLive, wherein WeWork members will live and work in the same WeWork-owned spaces.
Neumann refers to WeWork’s ideal tenants as the “We Generation.” This describes a community of people that “cherishes intention and meaning, a lot of times above material goods,” he says, which is an effective way of selling yourself to budding entrepreneurs and startups who aren’t necessarily making any money (or anything at all). But who, really, is a member of the “We Generation?” And who shares in the sharing economy, and who takes? Who is underneath, cleaning up the mess? WeWork fetishizes the “hustle,” and that’s fine, but what about vacation time and benefits for people trying to support a family in a city that only seems to be getting more and more inhospitable? Who gets to “Never Settle Ever?”
Not everyone, clearly. While reporting an earlier piece on WeWork, an employee of the company who was not authorized to speak to press told me that a man identified as the “head of maintenance” was awarded a surprise cash bonus of several thousand dollars at a WeWork company summit. The point, seemingly, was to express the notion that all kinds of work — not just entrepreneurial work! — are considered valuable in “the We Generation.” This “head of maintenance” is, apparently, a WeWork employee and not a cleaner employed by CBM; the degree of his involvement in the actual process of maintaining the quality and cleanliness of the space is unclear. Asked to verify the identity and position of this individual and whether he received this surprise cash bonus, a company spokesperson told me in an email, “We don’t comment on personnel matters.”
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