Security guards unionize; tenants could benefit

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June 13, 2005 // UPDATED 1:55 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

In some Downtown buildings, the security guards once made less than the janitors, says Javier Morillo, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26.

SEIU should know; it represents the janitors - and recently organized 1,000 private security guards in four large firms. The security guards settled their first master contract March 19 by a three-to-one margin, Morillo said. The contract covers employees with Securitas, American Security, American Commercial Security Services (ACSS) and Viking Security.

The contract would not only benefit guards, but building tenants, Morillo said. Security guards are first responders to emergencies, and the union would work with security companies to raise training standards, which he called "woefully inadequate."

Julia Grantham, Local 26's organizing director, said improving wages and benefits would also cut employee turnover. During the organizing campaign, residents told them that many security officers would come and go.

"They would like to see the same face," she said. "It makes them feel a lot better and a lot more secure, knowing they have the same guy out there, the same gal, day in and day out. [The guards] build relationship with the residents and the tenants in these buildings. That is great for everybody."

The contract guarantees a $10 an hour minimum wage, Grantham said. Pay rates used to vary building to building, but most already paid more than $10 an hour. If the building were closed for a holiday, security guards lost that day's pay, even if they wanted to work.

The new contract adds health insurance contributions, holiday pay, life insurance and a grievance procedure, Grantham said. It means security guards are no longer at-will employees. It precludes security companies from paying minimum wage during a training period.

Security company officials reacted to the contract with guarded optimism.

Richard Kohl, executive vice president and general manager of American Security, said the contract would be a good thing in the long runif the union held to its stated purpose.

The contract set a floor which American has already exceeded, he said. Companies would continue to pay more for the skills they wanted.

Kohl said he looked forward to seeing if the union could deliver on improved training. His firm has 260 covered workers.

Securitas did not return phone calls.

Brian Westphal, Viking Security regional manager, said he had cost concerns, but a unionized workforce "has the potential for being a good thing in light of all the homeland security issues."

He used 9/11 as a prime example.

"The first folks to react [at the World Trade Center] were private security folks in the buildings themselves," Westphal said. "They had the keys to the rescue elevators. They had the evacuation plans. They have a sense of what floors are occupied, what floors are not occupied, what floors are occupied at what particular time. Responding EMS, both fire and medical and police don't have those details."

Viking contracts including the Hennepin County Government Center.

Viking also has Ramsey County's security contract, and SEIU has represented the workers since it started in 1987, Westphal said. He calls the partnership successful.

His least-senior security officer under the Ramsey County contract has seven years on the job, stability unheard of in the industry, Westphal said.

Hennepin County has received comparable security services to Ramsey County, even though Hennepin County was not unionized until this year, he said. However, Hennepin County has a prevailing wage policy. It means Viking pays its private security guards $2 to $3 an hour more than the new contract requires. (The county also hires its own in-house security and measures prevailing wage against in-house staff, not industry averages, he said.)

Westphal said he's participating in the contract because he already had a relationship with SEIU, and because union efforts nationally had shown better service delivery and reduced turnover. He emphasized the Minneapolis market differs from Los Angeles and Chicago and the benefits still are only "potential."

Morillo said SEIU worked hard to get four companies to sign a master contract instead of signing individual contracts.

"If we just raise one company's standards, that company eventually will be priced out by the bottom feeders," he said.

When the companies compete for contracts, the master contract provides a level playing field for wages and benefits, he said.

"What they are judged on is the quality of their work, on reducing overhead," Morillo said. "Lowering bids is not done on the backs of the workers."