2/26/08

SEIU-member security officers walk out

Security guards lined the streets of downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul on Monday as part of a one-day labor strike. Members of the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) voted Feb. 9 to authorize a strike, and the daylong picketing and support rallies were scheduled after negotiators failed Saturday to agree on the terms of a new contract.

The approximately 800 striking security officers are expected to be back at work Tuesday. But if negotiators fail to reach a deal at their next meeting March 6, Monday’s demonstrations could be a prelude to a longer labor strike.

In Minneapolis, the striking workers carried numerous signs and chanted a warning to their employers: “If it needs to get bigger, it will get bigger.”

The key issues for the union are hourly wages and health care costs. Other sticking points cited by workers Monday included increased training for security officers and additional supplies, such as bullet-proof vests, for officers working in potentially dangerous areas.

Security workers in the Twin Cities signed their first union contract in 2005, and the young chapter is waging an unprecedented battle as members negotiate their second contract. The SEIU Local 26 currently operates within the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and represents approximately 80 percent of the private security workforce in those cities.

The five security companies represented in the negotiations are ABM Security Services, AlliedBarton Security Services, American Security, Viking Security and Securitas Security Services USA. Buildings affected by the strike include Block E, the IDS Center, Ameriprise Financial Center and the U.S. Bank Building.

Guy Thomas, the lead representative for the security companies, said buildings in the Twin Cities maintained continuous security service throughout the day Monday, as the security companies had prepared for the walk-out.

Negotiators for the two sides have met eight times since Dec. 1. Professional mediators took part in the last two meetings, and are scheduled to do so again at the March 6 session.

A union member familiar with the negotiations said representatives for the security companies walked away from the table Saturday without making any real progress on the subject of health care.

But Thomas said in a phone interview Monday that Saturday’s negotiations were “very positive,” and that the security companies had offered an hourly wage increase and made progress on refining the geographic area in which the union can operate.

He said the two sides “have made progress on [health care] and we believe the negotiation process should continue to play out. Each of the five security companies is committed to the goal that our employees will have an affordable health care plan when this is done.”

A gap between the two sides also remains on wage increases. A union member said the yearly wage increases offered by the security companies are smaller than those in the previous contract, which expired Jan. 1. David Zaffrann, a spokesman for the union, said the average security officer in the Local 26 earns $11.75 an hour.

Gregg Zavitz, a security officer at Ameriprise Financial Center in Minneapolis, said a major reason for the one-day demonstrations is simply “to show that we can do it.”

Dozens of workers rallied at the Nicollet Mall on Monday morning and proceeded to march through the sidewalks of Minneapolis. A similar rally was held at Town Square, 444 Cedar St., in St. Paul.

“Today is about wages. It’s about health care. But it’s also about dignity,” Javier Morillo, president of the SEIU Local 26, said at the Minneapolis rally.

Comments by union members focused heavily on the high cost of health care. Their sentiments were echoed in remarks by U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken and State Rep. Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, who marched with the striking workers. Morillo also announced the union’s endorsement of Franken during the rally.

Morillo said the union is willing to return to the negotiating table at any time. He said future walk-outs aren’t likely to occur before the March 6 negotiations, but added that a longer strike is possible as the two sides have a long way to go to reach a middle ground.

The first contract proposal submitted by the union represented a 125 percent increase in hourly wages and a 650 percent increase in health care costs for the security companies.

The security firms publicly balked at those demands in a press release Monday, but Morillo said the proposal was simply a high-ball starting point to begin negotiations.

“You don’t start where you think you’re going to end up,” Morillo said. “We’ve talked with them (about) what kind of a figure we can accept. And right now, what they’ve given to us as their bottom line isn’t going to get our members the health care they need.”

The SEIU Local 26 also includes a janitorial branch, and many members work in the same buildings protected by the union security officers. Morillo said the security guards are seeking the same health care benefits that janitors received in contract negotiations last year.

Henry Lowe, 53, works for ABM Security Services in the Minneapolis parking ramp system and joined a worker march through downtown Minneapolis on Monday morning.

Lowe said his wife has been hospitalized since 2006 with sarcosis, and he pays $579 per month in health care premiums for the two of them, plus a steady stream of medical bills.

With 20 years experience in the security field, Lowe said he has been troubled by regular increases in health care premiums in recent years, combined with rising deductibles and reduced coverage.

But he’s optimistic his union representatives will help to control his spiraling health care costs.

“The union will get us the health care we need,” Lowe said. “The private companies don’t want to give us anything they don’t have to. I’m tired of being pushed around.”

(finance-commerce.com)

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