By Kris Maher
A union campaign to organize security guards across the country, a key testing ground for how new organizing strategies will affect the ailing labor movement, scored a victory yesterday.
The Service Employees International Union said Burns International Security Services, a U.S. subsidiary of Stockholm-based Securitas (OME:SE:SECU.B) AB, agreed to recognize the union as the bargaining representative of more than 1,100 security guards in the New York area. A spokeswoman for SEIU Local 32BJ in New York, which will represent the workers, said the union planned to announce the agreement today.
The organizing drive is notable because the union is seeking to apply a new set of aggressive tactics in an industry where few workers are currently union members. Tactics include reaching out to coalitions of local clergy, civil-rights and community leaders, as well as investors, to pressure security companies to allow large numbers of workers to become unionized at once. The union is also pushing the idea that security guards are crucial in an age of terrorism -- and therefore should be well-paid and well-trained.
"We spend a lot of time on the argument that this is how we can make our cities safer," says Stephen Lerner, director of the property-services division of the SEIU.
The new recruiting approaches come as labor faces waning support among workers who view unions as out of touch with economic realities. But many in the labor movement hope the campaign will help ignite a new wave of union organizing led by the SEIU and other unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO this summer to form the rival Change to Win Federation, representing 5.4 million workers. The SEIU projects it will organize a total of about 160,000 workers this year, many of them through long-running campaigns targeting health-care workers and janitors.
The union selected security guards for unionization partly because the sector is growing fast. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be nearly 1.5 million guards in the U.S. in 2010, up from 1.1 million in 2000. Yet most guards receive minimal training, and turnover rates can hit 200% to 300% annually, according to Cleveland-based market-research firm Freedonia Group Inc. Average pay is $10 an hour.
"This is an area where they can get some public support because of the threat of terrorism," says Marick Masters, a professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh. "But the biggest employers are going to offer stiff resistance."
Indeed, some companies so far have refused to cooperate with the union's organizing drive. AlliedBarton Security Services, which employs 38,000 security guards nationwide, opposes the SEIU's "coercive tactics against employers and their customers," says Larry Rubin, an AlliedBarton spokesman. The company is "totally committed" to offering employees "fair wages, excellent benefits and the best training possible," Mr. Rubin says.
But other security companies have signed agreements like the one in New York to let the SEIU represent its workers in a given city or region. James McNulty, executive vice president of security services at Securitas USA, which unites all of the company's U.S. operations, says the SEIU's appeal to community leaders, as well as to building owners and investors, has been "one of their more successful tactics." In total, Securitas employs about 100,000 security guards in the U.S.
Two years ago, Securitas agreed not to oppose the SEIU's organizing efforts in the U.S. "If our people indicate an interest [in joining the union], we try to give them an opportunity to make a free choice," says Mr. McNulty. Today, 10% of the company's U.S. work force belongs to a union, with the majority represented by the SEIU.
The SEIU has launched campaigns in about 10 U.S. cities, including Boston, Seattle and Philadelphia. About 50,000 private-sector security guards belong to unions today, with about 25,000 belonging to the SEIU.
Workers like Sylvian Francis are hoping the union succeeds. After 15 years as a security guard, most recently scanning bags and packages at a 25-story office building in lower Manhattan, Mr. Francis makes $9.25 an hour -- roughly half of what unionized janitors in the same building earn.
He says he is attracted by the union's promise of better pay and a 40-hour training program that it started for guards in New York. "Training would help," Mr. Francis says. "It would make the building safer."
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