Workers at the New Jersey megamall American Dream are striking this week in protest of what they said was unfair intimidation and retaliation, illegal firings, and substandard wages, among other grievances.
The conflict began between janitorial workers at the mall and their employer, HSA Cleaning, which manages the maintenance of the massive 3-million-square-foot mall, along with other commercial and retail clients. In June of 2022, two workers at the mall — Jose Terán and Luis Varela — began organizing a union drive among their fellow employees with the 32BJ branch of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. Both men were fired for their efforts, but federal labor law prevents companies for retaliating against employees for unionization activities.
After a year in court, both men were reinstated at HSA in July of this year. But since then, workers said HSA has fired another union activist and illegally disciplined two more. In response to the alleged retaliation, as well as other issues like low pay and expensive health insurance, unionized workers at HSA have been on strike since August 12, staging demonstrations in front of American Dream and demanding better benefits for the workers.
Kevin Brown, evp and New Jersey state director of 32BJ SEIU, told Glossy that the strike is an attempt to “continue the fight to win better wages and benefits” for the workers.
“The repeated acts of retaliation against these vital workers is a disgrace,” Brown said. “Workers have a right to be heard and they have a right to organize with a union. The fact that HSA has stifled organizing efforts in the past is inexcusable.”
While the striking workers are not directly employed by American Dream or its parent company, Triple Five, the strike still affects the operations of the embattled mall. HSA has around 114 employees, 76 of which voted to join the union. As of August 12, at least 35 employees were on strike. For a mall the size of American Dream, cleaning and maintenance is necessary for normal operations. Union workers at American Dream clean and maintain not just the stores and hallways, but also the water park, the ice rink, the ski slope and other attractions that are part of the mall’s destination appeal.
American Dream faced a series of obstacles in its long road to opening. After over 15 years of development, the mall was finally planned to have its grand opening in March of 2020 before the pandemic derailed it. Since then, the company has faced low foot traffic and high costs. In 2022, its annual expenses were over $232 million while its revenue was only $173 million.
Despite recent positive press from big celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Cardi B, both of whom posted to their millions of Instagram followers about enjoying their time at the mall, American Dream continues to struggle. It remains behind on payments to its debtors. Jeffrey Lahullier, mayor of East Rutherford where the mall is located, told northjersey.com in June of 2022 that “the mall’s definitely in trouble, no doubt about it.” American Dream did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
If the strike doesn’t resolve quickly, a lack of maintenance in the mall could continue American Dream’s struggles.
For Brown, that concern is secondary to getting the workers the compensation they deserve.
“The fact that HSA has stifled organizing efforts in the past is inexcusable,” he said. “And, as this strike and Jose and Luis’s fight for justice have proven, HSA’s efforts to trample on the rights of working people will not go unanswered. These workers deserve to be treated with respect. Period.”