LAST WEEK, ORGANIZED LABOR KICKED OFF ITS summer offensive in L.A. as the janitors union picketed NBC’s Burbank studios, hospitality workers and their allies rallied at Hilton hotels in Glendale and at LAX, and security guards marched from Westlake to Macy’s Plaza downtown. Both the janitors’ and guards’ actions were organized by Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), while UNITE HERE sponsored the airport-neighborhood rally that ended with civil disobedience and arrests on Century Boulevard. The three actions offered glimpses into the evolving strategies of two unions known for both their militancy and their innovative tactics.

Bucking national labor trends, UNITE HERE and SEIU have won impressive unionization drives by building alliances with clergy and neighborhood groups, and even, to an extent, by reaching out to the business community. They’ve also succeeded by sometimes bypassing the workers’ immediate bosses (custodial services, private security firms) to appeal to — and often shame — the larger, more public corporations that contract with these outfits. NBC Studios and the Hilton hotels may not have a single janitor on their payrolls, yet it is outside these corporations’ smoked-glass high-rises that unions are more likely to be found demonstrating than at the hiring offices of intermediary employers.

However, these unions also embrace an even less orthodox strategy by identifying their agendas with the recent upsurge of Latino-immigrant activism and the more distant memory of the civil-rights movement. UNITE HERE positioned last week’s hotel actions as a drive to “stop Hilton’s abuse of immigrant workers.” It’s unclear how far the union will try to tap into the enormous wave of energy — and positive PR — unleashed by May’s immigrants’ rights march, but SEIU has been appealing for nearly three years to the epic racial-equality drives of the 1950s and ’60s, and its Stand for Security campaign has partnered with the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), various black churches and Nation of Islam leader Tony Muhammad.

SEIU described its Macy’s Plaza event as a “civil-rights march” and adopted the slogan “Freedom Can’t Wait.” A Stand for Security Coalition press release noted that 70 percent of the county’s private security officers are African-American and quoted a charge by local SCLC chief of staff the Rev. Eric P. Lee that the building-management companies “are robbing millions of dollars from the communities of South L.A. every year, and that must end right now.”

“If corporate landlords,” the press release continued, “agreed to lift private security officers out of poverty . . . it would bring more than an estimated $100 million every year into the communities of South L.A.”

By borrowing the civil-rights movement’s vocabulary, SEIU is framing the security guards’ campaign for unionization as a continuation of that historic struggle. This approach also implies that the security firms and building-management companies opposing unionization are, in effect, opposing civil rights. Words and phrases such as “robbing” and “lift out of poverty” resonate with historical memories of black disenfranchisement and emancipation, but their use also raises questions of whether SEIU is not merely playing a race card, but packing the whole deck with them.

NEARLY 200 GUARDS AND SUPPORTERS marched Friday at noon down Seventh Street from SEIU 1877’s headquarters to Macy’s Plaza, a noisy and buoyant turnout made louder by whistles, a drum and a bullhorn. The plaza is home to the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), which controls the buildings targeted for unionization by SEIU and is responsible for contracting security firms.

One African-American security officer, Lillie Lewis, said she had been a guard for 19 years and in that time had seen her profession fall from a job with benefits to one with virtually none.

“When I started out in 1987,” she said, “they gave us a lot of training, and the pay escalated for 10 years. I was making $10 in 1997 with two weeks’ vacation, but now I make $9.75 and this year had my vacation cut to one week.”

A white officer, Heck (“As in, ‘What the heck?’ ”), claims he was harassed at his job at the Century Plaza Twin Towers for inappropriate union activity.

“ ‘Appropriate’ to them,” Heck said, “is off the property, or only on breaks, before or after shifts — which basically means never. You can talk about sports, you can talk about food, but not about the union. I was told that.”

After speeches by the Rev. Lee and the Rev. Dr. Lewis E. Logan II of Bethel AME Church, the demonstrators picketed the plaza as the two ministers tried to deliver a letter to BOMA’s executive director, Barbara Harris. After a half hour, a BOMA staffer accepted the letter; meanwhile, the demonstrators abruptly entered the plaza’s atrium, leading to two men being detained by the LAPD, who later released them without charge.

Two hours after their march had begun, the group’s members began the long, hot walk back to SEIU’s offices. Lee said neither the union’s entrance inside the plaza nor the detentions were planned. He also clarified the source of his claim of South L.A. being robbed by the city’s building owners.

“Ten thousand [private security] officers throughout Los Angeles County,” he said, “are paid approximately $6 an hour less than janitors. When you add that up, the 10,000 officers times $6 an hour times eight hours a day, you’re talking about $500,000 a day being pulled out of our community.”

Was he worried that presenting the organizing drive as a black civil-rights campaign would alienate the 30 percent of security officers who aren’t black?

“No,” Lee replied, “because it’s really a campaign for working people. Throughout the history of civil rights in our country, any time African-Americans have fought for civil rights, it benefits all working people. We as a community are concerned because of the high unemployment rate among African-Americans and because this industry employs a significant number of African-Americans.”

The fact remains that the security industry, which has grown exponentially since 9/11, has not raised the standard of living for nonunion guards.

“They were better off [a few years ago],” said Lee, who himself once worked as a guard. “As the economy goes, so go the service industries that are on the lower end of the pay scales. The squeeze on working-class people takes place. The profits of your capitalists are significantly improved.”

Martha Cox-Nitikman, BOMA’s L.A. lobbyist and senior director of government and public affairs, declined to discuss the civil-rights issues raised by the Stand for Security Coalition. “I think what we need to focus in on,” she said, “is that there is something different now than a few months ago. There is now a sentiment for the owners to participate in the negotiations. The question would be what role they will play, because it’s really up to the contractors to decide the individual contract details.”

LA Weekly