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Surprising Opposition to Effort to Organize Guards

A building owner who backed janitors doesn't want security workers in the same union.

June 04, 2004|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

A two-year effort by the service workers union to organize thousands of Los Angeles County security guards is gaining traction. But it has also run into opposition from a surprising source: Robert Maguire, the real estate magnate who championed the cause of union janitors four years ago.

Maguire doesn't want the same union to represent both janitors and guards in his buildings, which include some of Los Angeles' most prestigious high-rises. His argument is that such an arrangement could test loyalties during another strike by janitors.

Leaders of the Service Employees International Union, which is trying to organize guards around the country, say the issue hasn't been a problem in San Francisco, Chicago or New York. Landmarks including the Transamerica Pyramid building and Rockefeller Center are guarded and cleaned by people from the same local. Contracts in those cities prohibit guards from joining a strike or picket action, union leaders said.

"It's a smokescreen," said Jono Shaffer, director of the SEIU's national security organizing campaign. "It's a false issue."

Despite the opposition, the union appears to be making progress in its methodical Los Angeles campaign, which mirrors efforts in cities including Minneapolis and Seattle. Organizers have collected about 1,500 pledge cards from guards -- representing more than 85% of those working in targeted buildings, Shaffer said.

The campaign is backed by a number of religious and civil rights groups, including the Catholic Archdiocese and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Two weeks ago, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn urged Maguire and other building owners in writing "to develop an agreement on this issue as soon as possible."

Hahn's letter prompted the Building Owners and Managers Assn. of Greater Los Angeles to survey top members on whether they wanted to begin discussions with the SEIU, which would be a significant step toward negotiating a contract.

"It's not a vote," said Alan Levy, chief executive of Tishman International, who chairs the association's labor committee. "It's just a sampling to take the temperature of our members."

Other building owners besides Maguire, he said, "have mentioned the problem of the fox watching the chicken coop."

In 2000, Maguire broke a deadlock in the three-week Los Angeles janitors strike by personally lobbying fellow building owners to pay higher wages and benefits. At one point, he threatened to cut his own deal if they refused.

"Maguire Properties does not oppose unions, but believes it is a conflict to have two employee groups in the same building governed by one local," said Maguire spokeswoman Peggy Moretti. "The safety of our tenants is of paramount importance."

Maguire was unavailable for comment.

Nearly all guards at commercial buildings in Los Angeles work through contractors, but building owners ultimately pay for the services.

The SEIU cranked up the pressure Thursday morning, when about 100 union leaders, guards and supporters held a rally downtown as investors arrived for the first shareholder meeting of Maguire Properties Inc., which went public last year. Maguire allowed a small contingent, including Miguel Contreras, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, to address the group.

"I told them this is the biggest organizing drive in Los Angeles, and it's a struggle we're all going to unite around," Contreras said.

Guards complain that they've been given heightened responsibilities after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but they are still poorly trained and sometimes earn less than janitors in their buildings. According to the SEIU, the median wage for security officers in Los Angeles County is $8.44 an hour; most are not paid for sick days or holidays. About two-thirds of the guards are African American and 25% are Latino.

"If they raise the standards for us, then they should back it up by giving us a better contract," said Alex Valladares, 22, who for four years has worked in the front lobby of the Maguire-owned Wells Fargo Tower downtown.

Valladares, who works through the contractor Universal Protection Service, earns $9.50 an hour and has an individual health plan. Like all Maguire facilities, he said, the tower is known as a good place to work.

Still, he said, the job doesn't pay enough to retain workers. "It's more like a second job, not something you would want to do for the rest of your life."

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