32BJ SEIU member Alba Vazquez at Monday's town hall meeting (Photos courtesy of 32BJ)
Alba Vazquez emigrated to America in 1977 from her native Uruguay, where a military dictatorship had seized power a few years prior. She settled in the Bronx with the hopes of building a safer, more prosperous life for her and her young family.
It wasn’t easy. Vazquez and her husband went their separate ways and she was stuck raising four children on her own. To make ends meet, she juggled three low-paying jobs. “It was awful, 18 hour days, no weekends, no vacation,” she said.
Ten years ago, however, Vazquez’s fortunes changed for the better when she landed a cleaning job at Madison Square Garden and became a member of 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU). With a decent wage and benefits, she was able to provide for her loved ones.
“When I started to work at the Garden our lives changed completely,” said Vazquez, a softly spoken 53-year-old who lives on Hull Avenue near 204th Street.
Vasquez was speaking at a town hall meeting on Monday night at the Amalgamated Houses, a housing complex just south of Van Cortlandt Park. About 70 32BJ members had gathered to show their support for a City Council bill which would guarantee decent wages and benefits to cleaners, security guards, and other building service workers at new commercial and residential developments financed by city tax-dollars, and at buildings the city leases in the future.
“We should not use our tax dollars to create poverty level jobs,” said Kyle Bragg, vice president of 32BJ, which represents 70,000 workers in the city, 13,000 of whom live in the Bronx.
Council members Fernando Cabrera, Maria del Carmen Arroyo, and Oliver Koppell were also present at the meeting. They are down as co-sponsors of the bill – Intro 18-2010 – introduced last month by their colleague, Melissa Mark-Viverito.
Cabrera, who once worked as a school counselor
Council member Fernando Cabrera. On the far right are Council members Arroyo and Koppell.
As of yesterday, the bill had 26 sponsors. More than half of the city’s 51 council members, then, are on board - enough for it to pass. To avoid the mayor’s veto, however, 34 sponsors are needed.
Koppell said the bill isn’t that “radical.” In fact, several developments in Queens and Brooklyn already have a prevailing wage in place for building service workers.
But some opposition is anticipated. “I suspect that the mayor may not be all that enthusiastic about it,” Koppell said after the meeting. After all, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was no fan of the “living wage” requirement that the City Council insisted Related Companies grant future retail employees at the Kingsbridge Armory. (Related refused and their redevelopment plan was squashed.)
Today, Vazquez still works full-time as a cleaner at Madison Square Garden, earning $18.40 an hour. “I have a chance to retire with a pension,” she said. “I never thought that would happen.”
Vazquez believes others should be afforded similar opportunities. “People in the Bronx and New York City need to have a way to pay their bills, and to be able to make a future for their children,” she said.
A version of this article appears in the latest issue of the Norwood News.