Guard union in Twin Cities looks to expand after contract victory

SEIU focuses on grassroots growth of adding security officers to its union

'A really remarkable contract'

"When this particular contract came up, there was such a difference," said Graham, who is now vice president in charge of the security division for Local 26. "It's just about the difference between the Wright brothers taking off from Kitty Hawk and taking off in a jet from New York today. "

In December, the union brought a 34-member negotiating committee to a Twin Cities hotel to begin contract talks, a move intended as a show of strength.

But after more than two months of stalled negotiations, the union went public with a one-day strike on Feb. 25, followed by public endorsements from U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul and several state legislators and Minneapolis City Council members.

John Budd, professor of human resources at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, said SEIU is developing a reputation as a source of energy and activism among unions, which have lost much of their luster in the eyes of the public over the past several decades.

"[SEIU has] really been trying to break out of the sort of moribund stereotype of most unions these days," Budd said. "A while ago they figured that the business as usual approach wasn't going to be successful now. "

The key, Graham pointed out, was to present the issue to the public as a fight for better health care coverage. Prior to the new contract, the average security officer in the union made $11.75 an hour and had no paid days off, so negotiators fought for contract changes on a wide array of issues.

But they knew health care was the lightning rod issue that would draw the most attention.

"You can gather a tremendous amount of community support behind health insurance," Graham said. "As a result, we ended up with a really remarkable contract. "

Under the new contract, individual health insurance premiums have already dropped to $60 from $190 per month, and will fall to $20 per month by the end of the contract. The cost of family coverage will fall even more dramatically, while wages will increase by at least 50 cents an hour each year.

Other items that many guards will receive for the first time include a paid annual sick day and the option to put money into a 401(k) plan.

"If we did not, in this instance, create a lot of public awareness about health care, there would not have been the pressure [on our employers]," Morillo said. "I have the pre-strike offer and the post-strike offer that we settled with, so I know that it was effective. "

The focus on health care gave the union an issue that the public at large could relate to, and public relations, especially in today's media-soaked climate, is a vital part of any labor dispute.

As for the terms of the new contract, Budd summed it up simply.

"Anything that makes health care affordable for service workers is a major victory," he said.

Guy Thomas led negotiations for the consortium of five security companies that settled on the union contract. He offered little in the way of a personal critique of the union, other than to say that negotiations, in the end, were successful.

"The best test of a union contract is everyone is happy, and both sides came out with something as a result of this process," Thomas said.

The heightened public awareness also provided officers with indirect benefits. On April 9, the day negotiators reached an agreement, union officials announced that officers working at Block E in Minneapolis had been fitted for bullet-proof vests for the first time.