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Wackenhut a challenge to security guard union drive

July 30, 2007|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

Wackenhut Services Inc., one of the nation's busiest private security providers, is fighting City Hall in Los Angeles and on Capitol Hill to hang onto contracts worth billions of dollars. But one of its toughest foes may be the labor organizers behind the Justice for Janitors strike in L.A. seven years ago.

The Service Employees International Union has Wackenhut in its sights as it organizes security guards across the country. The company, based in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is the largest contractor working here that has refused to recognize the union.

"Wackenhut has been pretty hardball in seeking to prevent unionization," said Harley Shaiken, a professor of social and cultural studies at UC Berkeley. "The union is indicating there's a cost to that."

In March, labor leaders, members of the clergy and social activists wrote to the L.A. Public Works Department suggesting that Wackenhut wasn't qualified to continue doing business with the city under the responsible contractor policy, which requires companies to maintain records of "satisfactory performance" in all work, including work done under contacts with other governments.

The letter cited Wackenhut's "well documented record of racism, discrimination and poor security." Wackenhut is a subsidiary of the global security contractor G4S, which is under fire from international human rights groups and trade unions for alleged racist practices against black employees in South Africa, Malawi and Mozambique.

In April, according to Wackenhut, the city downgraded the company's initial score in the bidding process based on its answers to a routine series of questions each of the companies in the final round had been asked, dealing with their labor relations and performance history. Wackenhut's answers also prompted the Public Works Department to launch an investigation -- the department wouldn't disclose exactly why -- and the company's three-year, $14.2-million security guard contract with the city wasn't renewed after it expired in May.

The work went to three other companies. Only one of them, Securitas, has recognized the new SEIU security guards local, and just for commercial, not public-sector, work.

Two weeks ago, Wackenhut sued in Los Angeles County Superior Court, claiming that "the city abused its discretion by treating Wackenhut materially differently" from the other bidders," placing it at a "competitive disadvantage."

The suit doesn't name the SEIU but does charge that the union was behind the city's decision to dump Wackenhut.

"The SEIU continues to interfere in competitively bid public contracts ... demand[ing] that Wackenhut be deemed 'non-responsible,' " the suit says.

On Friday, the city filed a motion in the case and called Wackenhut's allegations false. Jono Shaffer, an SEIU deputy director, said he hadn't seen the lawsuit. Wackenhut's reputation was under the magnifying glass in Washington earlier this month, where the House subcommittee on government management, organization and procurement heard testimony about the company's labor relations and supposed performance lapses. The committee was examining flaws in the federal procurement system that let contractors with poor performance records renew contracts or sign new ones.

Federal investigators and a former company employee testified that Wackenhut failed to provide guards assigned to sensitive government facilities with adequate training or equipment. Its guards work at federal nuclear weapons sites, Army bases and Department of Homeland Security facilities. Wackenhut has collected $1.3 billion on federal contracts since 2004.

A delegation of labor and human rights activists visited Africa in April to investigate G4S' work record, including allegations that managers referred to guards as "monkeys" and required black and white guards to use separate toilets, and that the company had failed to pay overtime and back wages owed to its guards.

Lawrence Brede, a Wackenhut senior vice president, defended the company, testifying that it had "consistently been awarded high performance ratings" during its more than 40 years as a federal contractor.

In Los Angeles, the SEIU is hoping to repeat with security guards the success that it had in 2000 with the Justice for Janitors campaign. Los Angeles cleaning companies agreed to a contract that gave janitors a 25% raise and fully paid health benefits.

Nonunion security guards make as little as $8.50 an hour with no benefits, according to SEIU officials. Pay for unionized guards ranges from $12 an hour to $27 with health insurance and other benefits.

The union represents 50,000 security officers nationally, with significant memberships in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere.

In Los Angeles, an SEIU local established in May represents guards in 700 buildings who work for five contractors.

molly.selvin@latimes.com

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