July 26, 2006

Borrowing Language of Civil Rights Movement, Drive Is On to Unionize Guards

LOS ANGELES — For Michael Johnson, a security guard for 16 years, unionization cannot happen soon enough.

Mr. Johnson says the $10 an hour he earns guarding an office tower on Wilshire Boulevard is too little to support his family, so he has taken a second full-time job, guarding a construction site. His long hours exact a toll on him as a father: he leaves home at 6:15 a.m., before his four children wake up, and returns at 11 p.m., after they have gone to bed.

“Ten dollars an hour is not good,” he said. “You have to work too hard to make it. I shouldn’t have to work two jobs. I can’t do this forever.”

Mr. Johnson is among more than 70,000 office-building security guards nationwide whom the Service Employees International Union is trying to organize this summer, a group that in many cities is more than 50 percent African-American. Those cities include Los Angeles, where, the service employees say, guards’ pay averages $8.50 an hour, or about $17,700 a year for a 40-hour week.

The city’s black clerics are rallying behind the unionization drive, which has borrowed the vocabulary and history of the civil rights movement.

“This parallels what Dr. King was doing in Memphis when he was killed,” said the Rev. Eric Lee, chief operating officer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles. “He was speaking out on behalf of African-American sanitation workers, who had poor wages and poor working conditions, and it’s the same thing for security officers here.”

William Julius Wilson, a professor of sociology and social policy at Harvard, calls the drive “a very important development for black workers with low to modest levels of education.”

“The position of the African-American worker in today’s labor market,” Professor Wilson said, “has been severely weakened because of job losses, the decline in manufacturing and the union movement’s downward spiral.”

Many African-Americans recall that when Southern blacks moved north, it was unions that helped lift large numbers of them into the middle class. Later, however, blacks’ enthusiasm for organized labor waned, given some unions’ discrimination against them and, more recently, a focus on attracting low-wage Hispanic immigrants as crucial to ending labor’s decline.

But the service employees say they have obtained the signatures of most of the 6,000 guards they are trying to organize here this summer. One supporter is Mr. Johnson, who hopes that the raise he expects to get as a union member will help him buy a four-bedroom home for his family of six so they can leave their cramped two-bedroom apartment.

“We’re trying to get a house,” he said, “but we can’t afford the house payments.”

Though many building owners and security companies are unenthusiastic about the organizing drive, they have not resisted as fiercely as employers typically do. They decline to say why, but may have concluded that digging in would be unwise, considering the strong support for the drive from clergy members and politicians, as well as the service employees’ record of success.

Using tactics that have included sit-ins and the picketing of executives’ homes, the union has organized far more workers than any other in the last decade.

Robert Rediger, the chief lawyer for the city’s security contractors, declined to address the union’s assertion that the guards were underpaid. Rather, Mr. Rediger took a cooperative tone, saying the two sides would meet in August to discuss procedures that could quickly lead to unionization in the office buildings.

Officials of the city’s five largest security companies either declined to comment or did not return phone calls.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has urged the employers not to battle unionization, seeing it as a way of advancing his efforts to reduce poverty in South Los Angeles and of improving security as well. Low wages, he said, have led to extremely high turnover, leaving many guards with little training and a lack of familiarity with their buildings and tenants.

“I didn’t raise this as just a labor-management issue,” Mr. Villaraigosa said, “but as a homeland security issue.”

Among the service employees’ successes has been the organizing of thousands of Los Angeles janitors, who now average some $2.50 an hour more than the guards and, unlike most guards, have employer-paid health insurance. Andrew L. Stern, the union’s president, noted that nonunion guards often worked in the same buildings as unionized janitors.

“They’re doing jobs that require more skill,” Mr. Stern said, “but they’re paid less in wages and benefits. It’s pure exploitation of African-American workers.”

The organizing is just the kind of ambitious effort that the service employees and other unions that quit the A.F.L.-C.I.O. last year said they would undertake. The service employees have unionized 4,000 security guards in the San Francisco area, 1,500 in Minneapolis-St. Paul and, of some 40,000 guards in New York City, about 4,000 there. They are also seeking to organize guards in Boston, Seattle, Sacramento and Washington.

The Rev. Lawrence E. Logan, senior pastor at Bethel A.M.E. Church, said he expected unionization here to lift black neighborhoods by improving wages, providing families health insurance and enabling many guards to work one job instead of two so they can spend more time with their children.

Thinking back decades, Mr. Logan recalled, “Dr. King used to say that any religion that tries to save the soul but doesn’t do anything that deals with the conditions that damn the soul is a dry-as-dirt, do-nothing religion.”