Security guards turned heads in the Twin Cities last month when they won significantly reduced health care premiums in a new union contract.
It was the kind of union victory that has become increasingly rare in recent years, and came about as the result of a grassroots public relations effort that included a one-day strike, public demonstrations and the endorsement of local and national politicians.
What may be more surprising is that as of six years ago, the Service Employees International Union didn't represent any security guards nationally. Local 26, which has represented janitors in the Twin Cities for years, was the first SEIU chapter to successfully build a groundswell of interest in unionizing more than 800 private security officers, who signed their first contract in 2005.
The national union now includes security workers in at least six major cities, including Seattle and San Francisco. Group leadership claims SEIU recently became the largest union for private security guards in the country.
It's been a rapid rise for Local 26, and some members confidently predict that growth is only going to escalate.
Now that workers have agreed to a new five-year contract, Local 26 President Javier Morillo said the union will immediately make a concerted push to expand the borders of Minneapolis and St. Paul and reach out to private security guards within the seven-county metro area.
"As we go into the suburbs, we've established a pretty clear step forward for standards for the security industry with this contract," he said.
Morillo predicts that there is the potential to roughly double the membership of union security officers in the area, which stands at approximately 800 members today.
But how does a union that signed its first contract in 2005 make that happen?
The same way it developed their current membership: grassroots organization.
John Graham, a security officer for Securitas Security Services USA, worked in the Ameriprise Financial Center when he first met with union organizer Todd Dahlstrom four years ago.
"We, as individual guards, really knew just about nothing at that point," Graham said. "We had some very dim concept of what a union was all about. "
Graham said his employer never created a climate of intimidation when workers began organizing four years ago. An internal letter was sent to security employees noting that they were free to talk about unionization.
For the most part, the same process occurred at the four other security companies that SEIU members work for: ABM Security Services, AlliedBarton Security Services, American Security and Viking Security. Dahlstrom and fellow organizers would begin with casual meetings with employees and take what Morillo calls a market-based approach to unions by building as much widespread support as possible before making membership official.
As far as convincing officers to join was concerned, union leaders said it wasn't hard.
"These [security officers] work in the same buildings as the janitors, but what became evident is that these people were making very little money," Morillo said. "Sometimes people were surprised to learn that the janitors had better wages and benefits than the security workers. "
Morillo and others admitted that the union's first three-year contract was nothing revolutionary, which is why the recent round of contract negotiations was more heated, evolving over four months into a public war of words between members and their employers.