Guard union in Twin Cities looks to expand after contract victory

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.

Grassroots growth

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.

'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.

Dahlstrom has been involved with unions in various trades over the past decade, so his experience traces back further than most security people involved with SEIU. But he said he views the new contract, which Local 26 members voted to approve April 12, as a highlight in his career.

"When you actually are able to do something like this, and you go to buildings and guards are breaking down in tears because they finally have health insurance, you see that you really can have an effect," Dahlstrom said.