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Barclays Center workers, SEIU 32BJ seek commitment for enough hours to qualify for benefits

Since the Barclays Center opened in 2012, arena developer Bruce Ratner has regularly talked up "2000 workers," with 80% from Brooklyn and a significant fraction from public housing.

Uncritical supporters like film director Spike Lee and actress Rosie Perez have expressed enthusiasm about the presence of people of color working at the arena. The New York Times called it the "happy arena," pointing to Disney training for friendliness.

Few have pointed out, as I've done for years, that most jobs are part-time and most workers don't get benefits.

The rally: "Broken Promises"
Now, as a push for a new union contract has begun, it's clear that the arena's regular replenishing of the worker pool offers a crucial advantage to arena operators: the more workers hired, the less likely existing workers will get enough shifts and hours to qualify for health care benefits, as they once expected.

A column Monday in the Daily News explained that, last year, only four employees qualified for health insurance, according to Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which represents more than 600 of the security guards, ushers, ticket takers, and event staffers.

At a rally yesterday outside the arena charging "Broken Promises," SEIU 32BJ VP Shirley Aldebol, as shown in the video below, declared, ""We're here today because we want the Barclays Center to do the right thing."

A Barclays Center manager checks it out
Workers, she said, had to share in the arena's success. "We know we have to work when there are events... but it doesn't mean that everyone can be denied health care. It doesn't mean that everyone can be denied stable employment."

"We have been saying to Barclays Center for the last six months: do the right thing," she said. "We finally got to the table with Barclays Center, and we've had some very productive conversations, and we think that we can get there. But we have to keep the pressure on."

Aiming at full employment

The contract with Barclays Center, Aldebol said in an interview, doesn't expire until June 2016, but the union would like it resolved sooner. The contract has a provision which she said, in paraphrase, indicates the intent of both parties that many jobs will evolve into full employment.

That's "the spirit of the agreement," she said.

Without seeing the contract, it strikes me as not unrelated to some other hard-to-enforce documents related to Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, like the Community Benefits Agreement or Housing Memorandum of Understanding, that point to "goals" or "intentions." That said, the union has the power to push for changes in the document.

"To qualify to move up the wage scale and get health benefits for a particular year, workers must have worked 200 events the previous year, or make themselves available for 90% of the events they are offered the previous year, but not less than 150 events," union spokeswoman Carolina Gonzalez explained. However, few events workers get even that bare minimum of 150 events, so they can't even qualify.

An arena spokesman told the Daily News, "We are engaged in a dialogue with the union and are optimistic that we will come to an agreement." Note that the arena operating company is for sale, and is expected to be run by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov's Onexim, not Forest City Ratner.

At the rally

Present were Council Member Rafael Espinal, Assemblymember. Rodneyse Bichotte, and representatives from the offices of Council Member Laurie Cumbo, Assemblyman Jim Brennan, and state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery.

Espinal said that, "when we approved it, we approved it because of the jobs it would bring," but now suggested the arena was "playing three-card monte." Actually, "we" is the state, not the city, and the purported reasons were many.

While several Barclays Center employees attended, also present were SEIU members from other buildings in Brooklyn.

A former worker

Below I interviewed former Barclays Center security guard Aurelia Brown, who now has a full-time airport job after working part-time several years at the arena.

"The job was a good job," she said with some pride regarding the responsibilities involved, but lamented that "you're lucky if you work 16 hours in a week." Sometimes workers would be assigned to an event, then sent home if there was low attendance.

Moreover, instead of giving people more hours, the arena hired more people, which led to low morale. Some workers, Brown said, once had enough hours to get benefits, but then lost them after their hours decreased.

Her starting wage was $12.35, and $13.75 when she left, aiming "to support myself and my family."