By Curtis Skinner
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A sea of New York City doormen marched along one of Manhattan's wealthiest strips of luxury buildings on the Upper East Side in a rally for higher wages on Wednesday, and authorized their union to strike if their demands are not met.
In a city where housing prices have hit an all-time high, workers servicing the buildings called for a new contract that protects benefits and provides pay raises that keep up with the cost of living.
"With record high rents across the city, it's time for our raise," Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, the New York arm for property service workers affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, said in a speech to workers on Wednesday at a rally that took up two blocks of New York's storied Park Avenue.
The union's members, during the roughly hour-long rally, overwhelmingly authorized their negotiators to call a strike if they cannot achieve a deal, Figueroa said. The workers gave their consent by shouting out or raising their hands or signs.
An estimated 7,500 ralliers marched up the posh Park Avenue, according to event organizers.
They waved yellow signs, banged drums and blew whistles. Doormen who couldn't join stood at their posts on the street, with one raising his fist in solidarity.
"Like any other person I'd like to pay my rent and eat. Then I'm happy," said Earl Weathers, 56, a porter for an apartment complex in Brooklyn who took part in the march. "We want more money and to keep our benefits. It's been expensive, we're just trying to keep up like everyone else."
The current contract, covering more than 30,000 workers in 3,300 buildings, in all boroughs except the Bronx, will expire later this month. Union negotiators are bargaining with the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations, working on behalf of property owners.
"Negotiations with the union are going extremely well so far because we are both committed to the same goal: reaching a fair contract that includes wage increases and protects the generous health and pension benefits that workers enjoy today," said Howard Rothschild, president of the Realty Advisory Board in a statement Wednesday.
The union has not indicated how much of a pay increase it is seeking for members.
A strike would leave New Yorkers without union doormen and building servicers to staff security posts, deliver packages, dispose of trash and watch over children and pets, among other duties.
The tradition of uniformed doormen, typically a sign of affluence for a residential tower, persists in New York, where many residents are willing to pay hefty rents for apartments offering their services.
The price to buy a Manhattan apartment increased by nearly a third over the last year to a record $1.7 million on average, according to real estate brokerage firm, Halstead Property.
Yet the average annual salary for New York union members is $44,000, Figueroa said, well below the average household income of about $124,000 in Manhattan.
The union came close to calling a strike in 2010, but it was averted when both sides came to agreement on raises and benefits. The union last went on strike in 1991, Figueroa said.
A New York Police officer at the event said no arrests were made.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Diane Craft)