Jono Schafer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) fondly recalls the good old days of 2000, when striking Los Angeles janitors took to the streets and garnered enough support to win a watershed contract that called for a 25 percent wage increase over three years. One of the key players in that victory was Maguire Properties Inc., downtown’s biggest landlord and a firm that made it a point to maintain good relations with labor. Schafer says that MPI’s chief, Robert Maguire, was instrumental in urging his fellow building owners to settle with the janitors. “When the contract was ratified, he came to the union meeting,” recalls Schafer. “He spoke to people. He was autographing T-shirts.”
How times change. Four years later, Maguire Properties is again taking a public stand on a union — giving it a thumbs-down. Just before its first shareholder meeting, held earlier this month, Maguire made official its opposition to the SEIU’s 2-year-old effort to unionize security guards, another low-wage, insurance-poor job that is overwhelmingly performed by people of color, mostly African-Americans, who tend to live in Central or South Los Angeles. According to the SEIU, the median wage for security guards countywide is $8.44 an hour, a figure that’s increased less than a dime in six years. Schafer, now head of the SEIU security-guard campaign, says he’s disappointed with Maguire’s resistance to improvement but hardly discouraged; the union has been accumulating petition signatures from guards at a pace consistent with its ultimate goal of getting 80 percent to 85 percent of the county’s entire security work force — about 10,000 total — signed on. But without the catalyzing support of Maguire and the rest of the downtown landowning community, the battle will likely be much more uphill than the SEIU anticipated. Though Maguire and most other building owners do not directly employ the guards, they can dictate the positions of subcontractors and business owners who do. “We frankly were anticipating some concern on the part of Robert Maguire. We certainly thought he’d be an ally in this,” says Schafer. “Unfortunately, because of some real misunderstanding on his part, he’s not taking that position.” Maguire Properties did not return calls for comment.
Schafer’s explanation of Maguire’s “misunderstanding” of the organizing effort ranges from the usual — management’s fear of ceding control of its employees, an uncertain economy — to a concern about the SEIU being the union that represents both janitors and security guards working in the same buildings, thereby raising conflict-of-interest and loyalty issues in the event of a strike by one group or the other. “They’re afraid the union employees could shut down their building,” says Schafer.
Maguire Properties has invoked an obscure 1947 law that restricts the National Labor Relations Board from certifying union elections at job sites that have “mixed” representation. This means the security guards will have to join the SEIU via card check, a process in which employers simply recognize the union after a majority of potential members sign petitions. In opposing the organizing, Maguire has made it clear that it will grant no such recognition, creating a Catch-22 — guards have the right to a union in theory, but not in practice. All of the 50,000 security personnel represented by the SEIU nationwide in cities like New York and Chicago have achieved union status through card check; ongoing SEIU campaigns to organize more security personnel in these cities and many others across the country are taking the same tack. Locally, Schafer says, he is working on enlisting the support of other downtown business owners who, like Maguire, are members of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), which is expected to take a position on security organizing in the near future.
The cause of the security guards is shaping up into a modern-day civil rights fight. Sixty-five percent of guards in the L.A. area are black, a majority that more or less holds in other big cities; the SEIU is calling its national security-guard campaign the biggest black labor-organizing effort in American history. Nor are the demographics of this fight lost on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Maxine Waters, Jesse Jackson, and scores of other black civic and business leaders and community organizations that are calling for Maguire and BOMA to do the right thing. Traditional labor advocates, many of whom powered the Justice for Janitors movement, have also sided with the guards, including the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the County Federation of Labor, the San Gabriel Valley bishop of the L.A. Archdiocese and Mayor Jim Hahn. All have written letters of support and pledged their help in facilitating speedy negotiations; other campaign allies joined the guards in a rally staged outside Maguire Properties headquarters during its shareholder meeting this month.
In all the action so far, the uncomfortable question of whether the private sector is simply less willing to aid black security guards than immigrant Latino janitors, whether L.A.’s latest labor movement is suffering from an image problem grounded in race, hangs in the air. But for Larry Walker, a downtown security guard for 15 years, the real issue is dignity and fair treatment for all workers. “When the organizers came to me two years ago, I took a deep breath and said, ‘It’s about time,’” says Walker, 51, a resident of the Crenshaw District. “I’ve seen guards dismissed for personal reasons, reasons beyond performance. There’s never a sense of stability.” Walker says he had an epiphany on 9/11, when his management ordered everybody to go home for safety reasons — except the security guards. “We were alone in that building,” he says. “I started thinking about what we sacrifice for this job. We’re really on the frontlines, especially now. All we want to do is legitimize security, make it more competitive and create a better climate of safety for everyone.”