UN's Basement Brawn May Be Its Finest Force

Some talks at world body are led by upholsterers, not undersecretaries.

Yes, they do windows here - 17,749 of them to be exact.

The 3-million-square-foot United Nations complex demands around-the-clock attention. Whether it's pruning one of 1,500 rose bushes, changing a bulb in one of the 82,341 light fixtures, or replenishing one of 500 soap dispensers, the chores never cease.

"What does it take to run the UN? A rock-'n'-roll group called 'Blood, Sweat, and Tears,' " says Anthony Raymond, foreman in the HVAC unit. "But most people outside the building, let alone upstairs, don't know what happens here. Much of what we do is invisible."

Far below street level, a labyrinth of corridors buzzes and hums with the sounds of the various trade shops, from carpentry and plumbing to upholstery and sign painting. And it is down here where the minions of maintenance get their orders, or trade anecdotes about those diplomats upstairs.

There was the time former first lady Barbara Bush got stuck in one of the building's 41 elevators. "She was nice about it, but these things just show you that we are a normal building," says Nick Feliciano, supervisor of the custodial and contractual unit. "We might treat you like royalty, but the equipment will treat you like everybody else.

"But we do have a lot of prima donnas come here, and they all have their pet peeves," adds Mr. Feliciano, recalling the wife of one former secretary-general who made no secret of her disdain for dust.

A fast-mobilizing UN force

When an emergency strikes, as it does almost once a month, everyone pulls together and helps, says Gene Mongello, a plumber who was stuck in the UN for four consecutive days during a blizzard in 1996.

That was the year the roof of the General Assembly blew off. Five years ago the East River flooded the basement. And there is the occasional burst pipe.

"It's that kind of job. It's action," says Om Taneja, chief of the plant-engineering section in the facilities-management division. Mr. Taneja and the other chiefs are on call 24 hours a day. As a first line of defense, there are always two electricians, one plumber, and one HVAC on the premises.

With so much work to do, it wouldn't be surprising if Security Council resolutions or General Assembly agenda items didn't lead the conversation during coffee breaks. But they sometimes do.

Ivan Mitchell, who came to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago, has worked in the UN for 27 years. Now the foreman of the upholstery shop, Mr. Mitchell doesn't hesitate to offer his views.

"Since the end of the Soviet Union, the balance of power has shifted to one side. It's not healthy to have the US dominate, to have one country dominate," says Mitchell. "It's time we increase the number of permanent members on the Security Council. Clearly, there are others who are economically strong. The US proposal is a step in the right direction, but it's not enough."

Downsizing downstairs

Talking to the staff who keeps the place running, it becomes clear that everyone feels the effects of downsizing. Most shops used to have staffs of 10; now some are down to as little as two.

The facilities division's proposed budget for 1998-1999 is $125.3 million; nearly all of that pays for rental space in buildings not on the "main campus" of the UN, utilities, and cleaning. The rest, an estimated $5 million to $6 million a year, covers maintenance.

"With member states not paying their dues [and] the talk of continued downsizing, everyone is shaken up," says Nicholas J. Sardegna, director of the facilities-management division. "But the staff has done a remarkable job of still maintaining this building with fewer and fewer hands."

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