Locked-Out Workers Picket Flatbush Gardens Slumlord

Wed, Dec 1, 2010

By Stephen Richard Witt

Locked-out workers picketing at Flatbush Gardens.

Locked-out workers picketing at Flatbush Gardens yesterday. (The Brooklyn Ink/Stephen Richard Witt)

Pouring sheets of rain and 40 mile-an-hour gusts of wind were not enough to stop locked-out union workers from picketing for a third day against a pay cut at the Flatbush Gardens housing complex in Brooklyn today. More than two dozen maintenance men and janitors, clad in bright yellow disposable parkas, stood outside the complex’s management office for hours, protesting a plan put forth by Renaissance Equity Holdings that would lead to a 30 percent pay cut.

“If it rains, snows, sleets, whatever, we’ll be out here,” said Rudolph Barry, a handyman who has worked at the building for seven years.

Renaissance Equity Holdings, which owns and manages the building, locked the workers out on Monday. The workers are represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 32, which refused to accept the pay cuts. Management offered a plan to cut hourly pay from $21 an hour to $14 an hour for handymen, and from $19 an hour to $12 hour for porters and janitors. The plan would also reduce health care coverage and other benefits, and reduce vacation days.

The union’s previous contract, negotiated with Renaissance in 2005, had expired in April. Negotiations had continued through the summer, with the parties failing to reach an agreement.

The workers aren’t getting paid during the lockout.

“It’s the holiday season,” says Kwame Patterson, a union spokesman. “They really waited for a terrible time to lock out people with families.”

“My kid’s telling me he wants a Playstation for Christmas,” says Lucien Clarke, an electrician who’s worked in the complex since 1987. “I keep telling him I’m locked out.

Landlord David Bistricer, the owner of Renaissance Equity, purchased the building complex for $138 million in 2005. Since then Flatbush Gardens has racked up an astonishing 5,354 Housing Department violations, earning Bistricer a top spot on the city’s Worst Landlords Watchlist.

Renaissance, who owns buildings throughout the city, defended the lockout in a statement.

“The Union has insisted upon executing a contract that requires Manhattan wages for a property located in East Flatbush in receipt of East Flatbush rents,” the statement reads. “While Renaissance Equity Holdings’ offer is above the wages paid in most East Flatbush multifamily buildings, the offer has not been accepted.”

Patterson says he was confused by the statement. “A lot of building owners in Brooklyn have actually increased wages. It’s really baffling.”

Located about a mile southeast of Prospect Park, Flatbush Garden sprawls over several city blocks and houses more than 10,000 people, making it one of the borough’s largest continuous units of housing stock. Formerly known as Vandeveer Estates, the building was renamed after it was purchased by Renaissance Equity in an attempt to market apartment units to upscale professionals. The marketing website for the property advertises $1,000-a-month one-bedroom apartments featuring “refinished wood floors, freshly painted walls, and upgraded appliances and plumbing fixtures.”

On the ground it’s a different story. Residents complain of vermin, roaches, bedbugs, leaky ceilings, broken elevators, mold infestations and crime. Conditions at 1412 New York Ave., one of over fifty buildings that make up this complex, bore out tenants’ complaints: the security door was broken, the elevator was jammed, the floors were dirty and the hallways smelled of urine.

“Everybody I talk to here has a broken faucet or a leaky roof,” says Victor Fertides, a temporary replacement worker from the Bronx. It’s his first day on the job, and he’s being paid $13 an hour to do carpentry work. Fertides says he’s reluctant to cross the picket lines, but does so out of necessity. “I have a son. I have to do it.”

While some workers will cross picket lines, others won’t, a fact evidenced by the gigantic mound of garbage on Foster Ave. Thick black bags of trash sit in the rain, the oily runoff spreading out into the street. In a show of solidarity, the city’s sanitation union is refusing to collect the trash.

“Unions won’t cross other unions’ picket lines,” says Patterson. He added that unionized delivery workers from FedEx and UPS were refusing to service the complex as well.

Inside 1405 New York Ave. the hall closets are filled with garbage, giving the hallways a fetid smell. Residents say the building’s garbage incinerator has been broken for over a year.

“Not even the scabs are removing the garbage,” says Wanda Owens Brown, a retired school board worker who’s lived in the building for seven years. “It’s disgusting.”

Union officials acknowledge the problem, but say they are willing to wait as long as it takes to force management back to the negotiating table. They’re organizing a rally for 5:30 pm tomorrow to increase the pressure.

“It’s gonna go on till management comes to their senses,” says Frank Bonura, a union delegate.

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