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Protesters take aim at Maritime Aquarium for ending outsourced cleaning contract

Union members and Norwalk community activists protest Saturday at the Maritime Aquarium.

NORWALK, Conn. – Union members and others shouted “Shame on you!” at the Maritime Aquarium – literally, toward the building – Saturday afternoon as they protested what they called a “Race to the Bottom.”

More than 70 people took part in the demonstration organized by 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), forcing aquarium patrons to squeeze their way past the chanting crowd, as they drew attention to the plight of 11 workers who had been cleaning the aquarium before being laid off in December.

Protesters line the Maritime Aquarium’s entrance Saturday.

“The workers who were until recently working for the Norwalk Aquarium were making decent wages with benefits,” said Alberto Bernardez, assistant director for 32BJ. “Now, because of the actions of the Norwalk aquarium, those workers are not going to have (any) choice but to line up … for public benefits.”

The workers never worked for the Maritime Aquarium, according to a press release from aquarium publicist Dave Sigworth.

“The aquarium did not lay off any workers in question, but did not renew a contract with a cleaning company as part of austerity measures to control our operating costs and avoid a deficit. The cleaning-contract cost had risen approximately 54 percent over recent years and therefore was part of the cost-cutting plan, which was difficult for all at the aquarium,” the release said.

The aquarium had contracted with Premiere Maintenance Inc. for 18 years, a press release from 32BJ said. “(The aquarium) replaced the cleaners with mostly part-time workers making poverty wages and no health care insurance, paid sick days or any other benefits,” the press release said.

“I’m enjoying working here at the aquarium for 14 years,” said Erika Aguilera, a mother of two, in the protest. “I try to do my job very well, keeping all the people happy, but they don’t care … They just fire everybody. We apply for our new jobs. They don’t care …”

The aquarium saved $43,000 by ending the contract with the cleaning service, said 32BJ District Director Juan Hernandez. Hernandez framed that as “less than half a percent of the overall budget.”

Speakers at the protest included state Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk), council members David Watts (D-District A) and Eloisa Melendez (D-District A), state Rep. Bruce Morris (D-Norwalk) and former Councilman Warren Peña, president of the South Norwalk Community Center (SoNoCC). District D Chairman Vinny Mangiacopra, who ran for mayor last year, attended but did not speak.

Duff said he and others have been “fighting for justice for janitors” for a long time.

“We’ve been working now for many months to try to bring the aquarium and 32BJ together to come together with an agreement. We haven’t got there yet. We are going to continue to fight each and every day to try to get that together so we have the justice for janitors so we don’t have a race to the bottom, we don’t have $8 an hour with no health benefits.”

Mayor Harry Rilling was not there. Rilling said later that he did not make it because he was meeting with members of another union, which he did not name. Aquarium President Jennifer Herring has been out of town, he said, but a meeting is scheduled for Tuesday morning with aquarium officials and council leaders.

The goal for Norwalk officials is to “find out exactly what the details are and what we can do to resolve this problem,” Rilling said.

“We want to sit down and see if we can’t come up with some solution,” he said.

Protesters said they would make their presence known at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting.

The aquarium’s statement said the organization was prevented from hiring the workers back by the contract.

The statement said:

“We don’t know why the contractor had to lay off their workers, rather than reassign them other contracts, but we were precluded from hiring them by the contract. We hired other people from Norwalk and surrounding areas as we took this service and other functions in-house.

“The people we have hired are part-time employees, since our business is seasonal and we have to match our costs with our revenues – i.e., traffic is much higher in the summer and over school vacations. Their pay and benefits may be different but, again, we do not know the specifics of the compensation packages of the former contracted workers as the employment matters were private between the cleaning company and its employees.

“It would not be fair or efficient to lay off or let go our new hires now, who are again from Norwalk and the local area. (Ten are Norwalk residents.)

“Like many non-profits, we have had to make tough choices with respect to our costs over the year to stay on a sustainable financial path and to continue to provide an attraction to Norwalk of 400,000 visitors per year, educational services and programs for 175,000 kids, many of which are underserved, and other programs which benefit the City.”

SoNoCC spokesperson Pat Ferrandino also attended the protest, indicating afterward that it was good to see Hispanic people take action and protest.

“This is a community that has long been silent and needs to be heard,” he said. “I think that the Latino has been underrepresented. It’s time that the leaders rise up from within the community to protect the needs of the Latino community that for too long have been underserved by those who perhaps have a different agenda.”

Comments

23 responses to “Protesters take aim at Maritime Aquarium for ending outsourced cleaning contract”

  1. anonymous

    Another example of Norwalk Unions bullying and smear tactics to get their way. If these employees are as good as they attest, they will surely be able to find cleaning jobs at other union businesses. They will all qualify for subsidies under Obamacare. The Unions want the Aquarium to fire the part time Norwalk workers and let the union workers back in.
    Demoralize one of Norwalk’s crown jewels as if South Norwalk and Washington Street doesn’t have a hard enough time attracting people to begin with.

    Here’s an example of Duff and Rilling showing ‘respect’ to the unions to the detriment of other Norwalk employees and taxpayers.

  2. Old Spice

    This is a clear case of mismanagement by Pres. Jennifer Herring. The Maritime Aquarium recently had a large billboard on I-95 announcing a chocolate festival. A chocolate festival at the Maritime Aquarium??? Sounds like desperation time.

    What happened to the wing-sail catamaran, Patient Lady V, that was in the entry for many years? Larry Ellison, CEO of ORACLE Corp. knows the value of a wing-sail catamaran.

  3. EveT

    So this was part of “austerity measures to control our operating costs and avoid a deficit,” right? They saved $43,000. If the four highest paid workers had each taken a pay cut of $11,000, the problem would have been solved.
    OTOH, if it’s true that the cleaning contract cost went up 54% over recent years, you do have to wonder why. The cost of living has not risen to that extent.

  4. Anonymous

    The aquarium lets this people go, while keeping an ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT working for them… Now, that is a mayor problem…

  5. anonymous

    how is this different from any other company changing or not renewing a contract to save money? these people would still be employeed today if the union did not force unfair rates to the cleaning company and their clients. and why didnt the union or the cleaning company these ppl worked for place them in other location? they did not work for the aquarium so why picket the aquarium? the root of the problem is the union trying to make more money for themselves not for for the workers.

  6. the donut hole

    The world doesn’t owe you a living. Get a job and a life.

  7. Bill

    Mangiacopra, watts, & Melendez, all unemployed or underemployed people telling a business how to run itself. Unions are killing the northeast.

  8. Casey Smith

    I drove by the Maritime Aquarium between 1:30 and 2:00 today (Sunday) on my way to pick up something. Nary a picketer to be seen. Came back via North Water Street about 4:00 p.m. just to double check. Zilch. Guess they moved on to the next picket line…

  9. Old Spice

    I consider myself to be a capitalist, and I normally disregard complaints by unions. However, this situation seems to be an exception.

    How could good management put itself in this position?

  10. LWitherspoon

    I am sorry for all the people who lost their jobs, but I am disappointed by the grandstanding and bloviating from certain elected officials regarding this matter. I know for a fact that many of the Aquarium’s programs benefit underserved children. Beating up non-profit institutions is highly unbecoming behavior for a public servant.
    .
    If $43,000 is such a pittance, surely Duff, Morris, Pena, Watts, Melendez et. can all agree to personally write a check to the Aquarium so that they can afford to re-hire the contracting company and these workers at a much higher rate than what they are paying now.
    .
    One wonders what pay and benefits are received by the people who clean City Hall, schools, and other city buildings. How does that compare to what the Maritime Aquarium is paying?

  11. anonymous

    Nancy on Norwalk, can you find out more about Premier Maintenance Inc. since they are the workers’ employers, some for 18 years. What made Premiers costs go up, what reduced the companies competitiveness? There’s a whole side missing to this story.

    1. Mark Chapman

      @ anonymous

      For starters, here’s some info from the company website.

      Now entering its 44th year of servicing the Connecticut and Westchester areas, Premier Maintenance Inc. is firmly established as a leader in its industry. PMI continues to outshine its competition because of its unique commitment to quality and personalized service.

      Founded in Norwalk, CT in 1965, PMI expanded its operation to eastern and northern Connecticut in 1973. As a result of the company’s phenomenal growth, PMI relocated its Corporate Headquarters to a 12,000 square foot facility in Milford, CT.

      Servicing more than 320 accounts statewide, PMI continues to maintain a high quality office setting and detailed monitoring system for its existing branches in Norwalk and Hartford. (See the link for more)

  12. Joe espo

    After this ugly display, the two Antonios (Warren and David) just may have succeeded in frightening a lot of people away from bringing their children to Norwalk to attend the Aquarium or to donate at fundraisers. So now, there won’t be a building left to clean! Great cost-benefit analysis, guys!
    .
    What a wonderful service to the greater community; what a generous way to promote the Aquarium, to enhance the image of Norwalk and distinguish our City from the Bilge-pit up 95.
    .
    “A enemigo que huye, puente de plata.” Let’s chase those enemy oppressors out of Norwalk and build them a silver bridge out of town; so says the proverb. I can imagine 32BJ at Home Depot buying up the entire stock of silver paint for the Straffolino bridge.
    .
    And after Norwalk has been abandoned by businesses and evacuated like Detroit, we can then raise our fists and chant: viva Norwalk libre!!!

  13. dawn

    isn’t the duty and responsibilty of any organization to use dollars wisely. if the aquarium has found that they do not have to pay the overhead costs of an outside vendor then good for them. the extra money that they are paying does not go into the pocket of the employee. that is profit for the company.
    .
    Hence the concept of CAPITALISM. the foundation of America.
    .
    it seems to me that the politicians are the same ones who watched NEON go down in flames for financial wrongdoing.
    .
    are they pushing for the Aquarium to be a successful, thriving entity, or do they want it to sink.
    .
    i would like to know what the hourly wage of the workers was then and what the wage is now.

  14. Oldtimer

    If Premier Maintenance has 320 customers (accounts)in the state, it is puzzling that they did not have other jobs for the 11 employees that worked at the Aquarium. It is also very hard to understand how 11 Premier employees, and their union, decided to demonstrate at the Aquarium rather than at the employer’s shop in Milford. Surely there is a certain turnover at Premier that could easily absorb these 11 people.

  15. anon

    Oldtimer and Anonymous, agreed, it seems half the story is missing.

  16. LWitherspoon

    Are all of Premier’s employees SEIU Union members, or just the ones who formerly worked at the Maritime Aquarium?
    .
    I agree with oldtimer that a company as large as Premier ought to have enough turnover to place those employees elsewhere. The honest answer to the question of why they didn’t may have something to do with restrictions contained in their Union contracts, or perhaps Obamacare.
    .
    I remain interested in the question of how much cleaners are paid who clean City-owned buildings such as City Hall and our schools.
    .
    Does anybody else find it odd that Mayor Rilling said he couldn’t attend the protest because he was meeting with another Union, but he wouldn’t say which one? If the Mayor meets with a Union in his capacity as Mayor, is that not part of his calendar which is subject to the FOIA?

  17. WOW!

    @Dawn:

    To answer your question, they were making $13.50 an hour. The replacements are making $8.50 an hour, with no benefits. Capitalism at its best? The City of Norwalk is about to forgive a $34 million loan to the Maritime Center and this is their response to 11 hard-working Norwalk residents! This is shameful.

  18. anon

    @WOW the new employees are making minimum wage and will be covered by Obamacare in CT.

  19. LWitherspoon

    Here is the list of City of Norwalk employee salaries from 2011:
    .
    http://redapplesnorwalk.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/top_salary_2011-1.pdf
    .
    My very quick count found 70 custodians earning $43,000 or more in salaries and wages in 2011. Of those, 29 earned $55,000 or more, with the highest earning $80,000. It’s not clear whether the list includes the cost of benefits. I believe it doesn’t.
    .
    If “WOW” is correct that the former employees of Premier who cleaned the aquarium were being paid $15.50 per hour plus benefits, they were earning about $28,000 per year. The replacement aquarium employees are earning about $18,000 per year. Both calculations assume 8 hour days and 52 weeks of pay.
    .
    So custodians on the City payroll earn upwards of $43,000 per year, plus benefits. The aquarium’s custodians were earning $28,000 per year, which was reduced to $18,000 per year.
    .
    What’s the difference in the work performed by the 70 City custodians earning upwards of $43,000 per year, plus benefits, and the work performed by the aquarium’s custodians for about $18,000 per year?
    .
    Whatever your thoughts on what a fair wage would be for that work, it’s worth asking why there is such a wide disparity in pay for what sounds like essentially the same job description. How did we get to a place in Norwalk where a well-run non-profit such as the Maritime Aquarium is procuring custodial work for less than half what the City of Norwalk pays? Is there some other explanation, i.e. the numbers for City custodians include massive amounts of overtime?
    .
    Before anyone accuses me of being insensitive to workers, I should note that $18,000 per year is probably not fair compensation for that work. I’m not sure what a fair wage would be. Reasonable people can disagree over that question, but we should all be concerned with the question of why such a wide pay disparity appears to exist between governmental and non-governmental employees.

  20. WOW!

    @anon:
    Sure, take someone with 14 years on the job, earning $13.50 an hour and replace them with someone at minimum wage. And you think that’s OK? Then, add to that, the replacements are part-timers… the employer doesn’t have to deal with ObamaCare. That’s OK, too? Finally, the City of Norwalk is about to forgive a $34 million loan to the Maritime Center. Are you good with that, too? Interest-only payments on $34 million would save a helluva lot more jobs than these poor 11 individuals. Now, if you say that the visitors to the Maritime Center create economic benefit to the city, then the same argument can be made at offering ten year, tax free incentives to new businesses to stimulate corporate growth in Norwalk. Are you OK with that, too? Just curious, that’s all.

  21. Suzanne

    A link to what constitutes poverty level incomes by Federal and State Standards as of July 1, 2013: according to this, a two person household earning $18,000 is a poverty-level wage. (Thanks for all of the good data, LWitherspoon!) http://www.ct.gov/dss/lib/dss/PDFs/PovSMI.pdf

  22. Mike Mushak

    I wonder where all the anti-union and free-market folks were when the city gave a $35 million free handout from Norwalk taxpayers to the Aquarium? I am a member and frequent visitor and understand the many benefits of the Aquarium, but I will never understand folks who support corporate welfare at such a huge scale but oppose any concern for the rights of local workers to decent pay and jobs.
    .

    This is more about a failure of management then it is about anything else, and I applaud the folks who are fighting for the well-paid Aquarium management to respect local jobs after they got such a huge handout from the community that built the place and that helps pay for their generous salaries and benefits.
    .

    Please, tell us your opinion about corporate welfare, about huge corporations like GE not paying a penny in taxes while paying their CEO’s hundreds of millions, as they break unions at the same time and blame the little guys, often through Fox News and Koch Brothers-funded anti-labor rants. The inequities in our country have never been greater, and it is lazy to blame the unions for everything when we have systemic issues much greater than that to solve. When the super-rich control so much including much of the media now, whipping folks up into an anti-labor frenzy as the scapegoat for all of our ills, it is frightening to watch.
    .

    It’s not just long-term cleaning jobs eliminated, but even full-time mid-level aquarium staff have been affected by pay cuts, which insiders say is more from bad management decisions over the years than from anything else. Does the free market mentality apply only to low-paid and middle-class workers, but not to corporations and upper management?

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