Workers seek union at Twin Cities’ largest property management company

By: - June 15, 2022 11:24 am

Josh Musikantow, a desk attendant at River Towers, is a leader in the effort to unionize more than 250 workers at condo buildings across the Twin Cities metro area. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Desk attendants and caretakers working for the Twin Cities’ largest residential property management company announced their intent to unionize on Wednesday, joining the groundswell of labor organizing that’s rippling through the service sector.

If successful, the union could include more than 250 FirstService Residential employees stationed at dozens of developments across the Twin Cities metro area, including downtown high rises and smaller suburban townhome developments.

They’ll rally in Minneapolis Wednesday at noon.

Josh Musikantow, who’s worked as a desk attendant at River Towers in downtown Minneapolis for nine years, said he’s wanted to unionize for years, but the campaign began in earnest during the pandemic. Workers signed a petition asking for more sick leave, hazard pay and better protections from the virus.

“And they mostly ignored it,” Musikantow said. “Other than what they had to do, they didn’t really do anything.”

Musikantow says he and his colleagues have grown increasingly frustrated with the low wages, expensive health insurance, and lack of respect and communication from managers.

They went to the Bloomington office last month to ask management to negotiate a process to form a union  — and avoid a likely lengthy and expensive election with the National Labor Relations Board — but the company declined. FirstService Residential did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Desk attendants and caretakers serve as the swiss army knives for residents — part security guard, part concierge, part janitor and, in Musikantow’s case, part pool cleaner.

They are also often first responders to people’s messy lives, dealing with mental illness and domestic abuse.

Jason Pape, a longtime desk attendant at Riverview Tower in Minneapolis, once responded to the roof alarm going off and found a man standing on the ledge of the building threatening to jump.

“I was able to talk him into coming down back to his unit, and then I and one of the caretakers sat with him while we waited for paramedics to come,” Pape said.

I doubt that any of the residents in those buildings even know who owns this company. But they know me. They see me.

– Patrick Kyei

Patrick Kyei, a desk attendant at Gallery Tower in St. Paul, was working the overnight shift when a man with a gun chased another man into his office. He ran out of the office and hid in the elevator while he called 911. Kyei said the man with the gun beat the other man, leaving a gruesome crime scene.

Afterward, management started locking the front door, but Kyei said no one from management ever contacted him.

“Not a single email or call to just appreciate the fact that one, I was on that shift. Two, that I was safe. Three, that I continue to work there. And four, that I worked there the following day,” Kyei said. “How about if I got shot? … Would they have ignored me like they did?”

Residents know these workers well, however: “I doubt that any of the residents in those buildings even know who owns this company. But they know me. They see me.”

Workers also say there’s a lack of clarity around what their job entails. They’re not armed or trained as security guards but they’ve had to remove trespassers and stop domestic abusers from violating restraining orders. Sometimes it’s the residents making threats or unwanted sexual advances.

They’re not trained as maintenance workers, but they have to do patch fixes or inspect mechanicals for a remote worker. They also aren’t paramedics but find themselves the first people on the scene of medical emergencies.

“We feel like we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” Musikantow said. “One time, they put out a huge memo saying, never provide any kind of medical assistance to anyone. And within the next two weeks, someone got fired for not doing anything when someone fell in the gym.”

Musikantow says he doesn’t expect the union to prevent him from dealing with any of these situations; a union doesn’t change the job. But he thinks it will help them earn a fair wage — more than the $16.63 an hour Musikantow earns now.

FirstService boasts being the largest property management company in North America, and its desk attendants have unionized in both Chicago and New York. Desk attendants there earn between $19 and $31 an hour, according to SEIU Local 26 President Greg Nammacher. They also have better health insurance and vacation packages, he said.

River Towers in downtown Minneapolis is one of more than 380 properties in Minnesota managed by FirstService. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Workers also say they want protection from the whims of management and to beat back years of cost-cutting, which workers say only accelerated after Toronto-based FirstService acquired their previous employer Gittleman Management in 2011.

For example, Musikantow says at River Towers they used to have eight live-in caretakers. Now there are two. They used to have laundry service, but that went away. They used to have a water cooler, but that went away, too. He says the desk attendants pool their money to buy their own water. Workers also paid for their own space heater to keep warm by the door during the winter.

Kyei said they also want a seat at the table, to have a voice in how the company is run.

“I know that we are not the owners of the company and decisions lie (with) the owner,” Kyei said. “But we are also on the ground …  it’s important that you hear from those on the ground when you are making some decision. At least it makes employees feel part of the company.”

Musikantow and the other workers have spent months organizing their colleagues with SEIU Local 26, which represents 8,000 property service workers across the Twin Cities including janitors, security guards and high-rise window washers.

They want the company to pledge neutrality — to not try to sway workers against unionizing — and negotiate a process for them to show a majority of workers support joining a union.

Unionizing FirstService desk attendants, caretakers and engineers would be the biggest victory for SEIU Local 26 since they unionized about 1,000 passenger service workers at MSP Airport in 2017. That campaign lasted five years and involved a strike and a march shutting down the airport.

Nammacher says this effort is indicative of the feeling of service workers across the country who are pushing for unions and striking at the highest rates in years.

“Frontline workers are just pissed across the country,” Nammacher said. “Whether that’s Amazon, Starbucks, or these residential workers, folks are just sick of it. People want to have a voice, they want to be listened to, and of course, with the rising cost of living, they want to have better pay and benefits.”

With a labor shortage across industries, the workers are in a good position to pack it up for something better. But Musikantow and Kyei say they’re staying because it could be a good job.

“I think it’s a job worth fighting for,” Musikantow said.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.