Looming NYC Doormen Strike Draws Attention to a Fractured Social Dynamic

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New Yorkers may be left without anyone to hold the door this week if the union representing more than 30,000 workers in residential buildings calls for a strike. The proposed work stoppage—the first in nearly two decades—would begin at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, when the current contract expires. As the New York Times reports, the conflict between the doormen and the building owners is over benefits. While the base salary of the workers, which averages about $40,000 a year, isn’t a problem, it’s the coast of benefits, which the Times reports raise the total per employee to nearly $70,000, that has the two sides at a stalemate. The building owners have proposed measures to cut the cost of benefits, but the union will not agree to lower wages or the proposed move to 401(K) retirement plans in lieu of current pensions.
The looming strike threatens to disrupt one of the most quintessentially New York relationships—that between the tenant and the doorman. As A. G. Sulzberger wrote in the Times, New Yorkers are left worrying: “Who will safeguard my apartment as I sleep? Greet my children when they come home from school? Accept deliveries? Clean the hallways? Sort the mail? Operate the elevator? And who, for goodness sake, will let the cleaning lady in?” But doormen hold great positions of power, even when they are not threatening a walk-out. Doormen know what their tenants eat, what kind of movies they watch, whom they spend time with, whether they drink too much, and whether they have kinky sex. In other words, doormen know far more about tenants than tenants know about them.
But while doormen are unusually intimate with their tenants, they are also socially very distant. Sociologist Peter Bearman explores this fraught dynamic in his celebrated ethnography—which the New Yorker called “a marvel”—Doormen. Combining observation, interviews, and survey information, Doormen investigates the occupational role of doormen, the social ecosystem of the residential lobby, and the mundane features of highly consequential social exchanges between doormen and tenants. Bearman explains why doormen find their jobs both boring and stressful, why tenants feel anxious about how much of a Christmas bonus their neighbors give, and how everyday transactions small and large affect tenants’ professional and informal relationships with doormen. In the daily life of the doorman resides the profound, and this book provides a brilliant account of how tenants and doormen interact within the complex world of the lobby.
Prepare for the strike by reading an excerpt from the book.