Security Guards Recruited by Union

Times Staff Writer

One of the nation’s largest unions has dispatched more than 100 organizers and members from around the country to Los Angeles as part of a full-scale two-week push to sign up thousands of licensed security guards for a new union local.

The Service Employees International Union is expected to announce the public phase of the campaign, called Five Days for Freedom, today. Some organizers and union members -- many from New York, Chicago, Oakland and Seattle -- have been in Southern California since early last week, working with local union members and clergy who have been slipping in and out of office buildings and urging security officers to sign union cards.

The goal of the drive, say union and religious leaders, is to secure signatures from more than half of the approximately 6,000 licensed security guards who are employed by five large security contractors in office buildings around the county.


If they can collect about 3,500 cards, union officials said, they would be in a strong position to pressure security companies and building owners to quickly recognize a security officers’ union. The service employees union and other unions prefer this strategy to the often costly and time-consuming step of holding a formal election.

“The purpose of this push is to call the question,” said Jono Shaffer, a service employees union official who is running the Los Angeles campaign. “If we can demonstrate that a clear majority want a union, then let’s bargain. I think this will reverberate.”

The service employees union is launching the campaign in part to build on momentum from an agreement the union announced in April with downtown Los Angeles’ biggest commercial property owner, Robert F. Maguire III, that allows guards in his buildings to unionize. Other building owners had opposed the organizing effort after it was launched in 2000 and have not commented on their position since the Maguire deal.

Representatives of building owners and security companies whose guards have been approached by union organizers declined to comment or did not return calls. Officials at the Building Owners and Managers Assn. of Greater Los Angeles also did not reply to phone and e-mail messages last week.

By bringing in union members and organizers from around the country, union officials are trying to encourage comparisons between Los Angeles security guards and unionized guards in other cities. Service employees union leaders point out that more than two-thirds of the commercial office space in Los Angeles is owned or managed by companies that use unionized security officers in other cities, including in the Bay Area, Chicago and New York.

The union’s campaign is part of a national effort to organize guards in 10 cities, including Sacramento, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. Union officials say that the opposition from Los Angeles building owners has been strong and that the high turnover and sprawling distances of Southern California slowed organizing.

The union said that security guards typically make about $6 per hour less in wages and benefits than janitors. In Los Angeles a unionized janitor can make $12 an hour or more, plus healthcare benefits. Most security guards earn about $8 an hour, according to the union.

“The janitors, they make better money, they have health care, for one simple reason: They made a choice to have a union,” Andy Stern, the international president of the service employees union, said at a Los Angeles union meeting last week.

As they fan out across the county, the out-of-town members and organizers are paired with local union members and, in some cases, ministers. African American pastors, many of them active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, have taken a high profile in the community coalition backing the organizing.

The union pays for the travel and expenses of out of town members. Some teams conduct reconnaissance, staking out buildings and trying to identify where the security officers work. Other teams use that information to ask guards to sign cards.

The activists share tips, some mounted on large sheets of paper on the wall on the 7th Street offices of the union’s Local 1877, which represents janitors and is headquarters for the drive.

One piece of paper was titled “Excuses You Will Hear.” The left-hand column read: “They Will Say.” The right-hand column instructed: “What Should We Say Back.”

If a guard says, “I don’t need a union. I make $11 per hour,” organizers could respond: “What guarantee do you have of keeping that?” To the reluctant security guard who says, “I am doing this while I’m in school,” the paper suggests a response: “Wouldn’t you want more money?”

One night last week, Stern joined Los Angeles organizer Donna Smith-Moseley and the Rev. Eric Lee in seeking signed cards. At a building at 801 S. Grand, they emerged with a card from security officer Candice Hixon, 21, who was working a 3-11 p.m. shift and studying a training manual on how to become a school bus driver. She said she’d gotten a visit from organizers the previous day.

“One person from New York came in here and said they make $18 per hour,” Hixon said.

“And a pension and healthcare,” Stern said. Hixon said she makes $8 an hour and didn’t see herself staying at the job very long. To that, Stern said: “I promise you, we’re going to do something. People from all over the country are here to make sure.”

By 8 p.m., the union organizers gathered back at the Local 1877 offices to listen to a speech from Stern, sing songs (“Victory Is Mine” and the “Security Guard Song,” an original composition by Los Angeles guard Bob Weaver) and share stories of Los Angeles. Simon Warren, a 30-year-old service employees union organizer from Chicago, described how one property owner threatened to call the police; he had to meet a security guard in a loading dock to get his signature.

“People are so separated in L.A.,” Warren said. “I think this is a new day and we’re trying to come together.”