April 20, 2006
L.A. Guards Closer to Forming Unions
A campaign to unionize the city's 10,000 security guards -- which has substantial backing in the Jewish community -- gained momentum on two fronts. One development was last week's recruitment of high-profile property owner Robert Maguire III, who agreed not to oppose organizing. Another was an effort to improve the training and working conditions of guards, supported by research suggesting that the nonunion status quo creates a safety hazard for all Angelenos.
The détente with Maguire was key, because he's one of the largest commercial property owners in the city. His crossing over will put pressure on other building owners to deal with the union, as well.
Maguire and union officials also announced a partnership that they touted as a first step toward improving security in buildings, as well as working conditions. At a cost of $125,000 per year apiece, Maguire Properties and the Service Employees International (SEIU) will fund a pilot training program for guards. The hope is that this training will become the industry standard; it also will put added pressure on other building owners to professionalize the industry, which, ultimately, could promote unionization.
The Maguire deal followed a City Council proposal of the prior week. City Council President Eric Garcetti and Westside Councilman Jack Weiss proposed mandatory training for security guards. Virtually nothing had come out of an earlier Council effort to get building owners to participate voluntarily.
Guards earn about $8.50 an hour on average and often begin their work with little or no training.
Rabbi Kenneth Chasen, senior rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple, supports the Garcetti/Weiss plan. "As a religious leader, I am always delighted when a piece of legislation meets a pragmatic public need while also responding to a moral imperative," he said. "We're commanded in the Book of Deuteronomy not to take advantage of needy and destitute workers. Instead of just creating the illusion of safety, by giving someone a uniform, [this] legislation promises to provide real safety."
Jewish leaders have worked as part of the coalition to organize guards since the campaign began about four years ago.
At its January convention, the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis unanimously endorsed a resolution supporting the security officers' right to unionize. The rabbis also committed themselves to hiring unionized security officers in any organization in which they are involved.
To buttress the push for training as a public benefit, the pro-labor Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy has released research documenting guards' low wages, lack of benefits and minimal training. Drawing on comparative data from other cities, where security workers are unionized, the report concludes that the annual local turnover rate of 90 percent to 243 percent is primarily due to low wages and limited benefits. By contrast, unionized janitors, who earn higher wages and receive family health benefits, have a turnover rate of 5 percent or lower.
Maguire had resisted the organizing effort, but he changed tack when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa helped broker a compromise by which the security guards will be members of a different local than janitors. Maguire, citing security reasons, had objected to having janitors and guards in the same local.
Last week's press conference embodied a celebratory sense of déj? vu for participants. Maguire's consent to let janitors unionize helped end the contentious janitors' strike of 2000. Now, part of the SEIU, the primarily Latino janitors have higher wages, health benefits and much lower turnover than the security guards -- 60 percent of whom are African-American. Last week's agreement is widely seen as helping unite two groups of workers who had sometimes perceived themselves as uneasy rivals for the lowest paying jobs.
"Economic justice has always been an incredibly important part of our tradition," said Rabbi Linda Bertenthal of the Union for Reform Judaism, who had authored the pro-union resolution at the recent convention for Reform rabbis. "In this case, economic justice and public safety happen to converge very nicely." -- Naomi Glauberman, Contributing Writer